Investors have also taken notice of the film industry in Africa. Two hedge fund firms, U.S.-based Tiger Global and Swedish-based Kinnevik, have both invested about $10 million into one of Nigeria’s Netflix-like movies streaming portals, iROKO Partners.


Caroline Okomo

Contributor to THEAFRICABAZAAR magazine

August 2013

Documentary filmmaker Leah Warshawski recently returned to Rwanda after a two-year hiatus. While there she screened her new documentary film, “Finding Hillywood,” at the ninth edition of the Rwanda Film Festival to perhaps her most important audience: The citizens of Rwanda. Needless to say, she was a bit anxious about the return.

Warshawski was not anxious because Rwandans are notoriously scathing film critics. She was anxious because in painting a portrait of the nation’s burgeoning film industry “Finding Hillywood” touched on a sensitive and a rather ugly aspect of Rwanda’s national history that compels viewers to recall the events and memories of the 1994 genocide that killed thousands of the Rwandan minority Tutsi ethnic population.

That particularly painful aspect of Rwanda’s history was one Warshawski initially tried to avoid entirely as she developed the film, knowing that the country and many of its citizens are very much trying to put it past them. However, during preliminary viewings of the film’s rough cut, some seemed perplexed that no real mention of the Rwanda’s genocides were made. Warshawski’s film appeared far too hopeful to those who vividly remembered a point in time when Rwanda’s civil conflict made international headlines. At length, Warshawski realizes she can’t tell the nation’s nascent film industry without offering a glimpse into its past, so Warshawski and her production crew went to work incorporating the genocide into the documentary.

“The general consensus was that people wanted to be educated about the genocide, or at least for us to give a nod to it so that they could see why it matters that people need to be hopeful now” says Warshawski. “To really make it a character-driven film you have to have hard conversations with people, and we weren’t able to have those conversations until a couple of years into the project.”

In the end, Warshawski believes the final cut of her film was far better than what she had initially hoped to produce. “Finding Hillywood” offers viewers an endearing glimpse into the inner mechanics of Rwanda’s weeklong traveling film festival. But, more than that, it’s a cinematic culmination of roughly a decade of growth in Rwanda’s film industry.

The first ten minutes of the film provides a brief history of the Rwandan civil conflict as told in part through the experiences of Ayuub Kasasa Mago, the Rwanda Film Festival’s coordinator. Mago, the film’s protagonist, discusses his past struggles with drug and alcohol dependency after he found out his mother was among those killed during the civil conflict. Out of those experiences and a need to turn things around and to bring laughers back to his city he put together a local film crew to screen films to local residents using collapsible viewing screens. The crew has since developed into a national touring film group, screening films, including the Rwanda Film Festival, across the country.

Mago and his crew are like a family. They quarrel and bicker over planning details, but set aside their differences to bring “Finding Hillywood”—named after the vast hills they tour—to the people.

Though “Finding Hillywood” runs just under an hour long, the final cut of the film took Warshawski and her team six years to produce. Acquiring the necessary funds to continue production was one cause—the film’s cash budget was about $250,000 and would have more than doubled had the production crew been compensated. Earning the genuine trust of those featured in the film was also a process Warshawski said couldn’t be rushed; this further drew out the production process. In the end, the film pays homage to Rwanda’s small but committed fiercely film industry—one that’s set on transforming its nation’s international image.

Hillywood’s filmmakers need look no further than Nigeria’s highly developed continental and international notoriety cinema industry for inspiration. While other African countries—South Africa, Kenya and Ghana, to name a few—also have established film industries, Nigeria’s Nollywood film industry, whose filmmakers produce a staggering 50 films per week, generates roughly $590 million in annual revenue and it is the second largest employer to Nigeria’s citizens after agriculture, according to the United Nations Department of Public Information.

Investors have also taken notice of the film industry in Africa. Two hedge fund firms, U.S.-based Tiger Global and Swedish-based Kinnevik, have both invested about $10 million into one of Nigeria’s Netflix-like movies streaming portals, iROKO Partners.

In comparison, Hillywood’s filmmakers produce an average of three to five films per year at most according to Warshawski, but that could change with more investment. Warshawski’s production company, Inflatable Films, partnered with the Business Council for Peace to create “a LinkedIn for Rwandan filmmakers” to help those in the industry find paid work. The site was launched in Rwanda last month.

“We’re gonna market it to international vendors and production companies so that when people want to go to Rwanda to do a project, to make a movie, to do a corporate film, to do any kind of film production—we – want this to be the website you go to for everything,” says Warshawski.

To say Warshawski’s commitment to Rwandan film runs deep would be an understatement. And that commitment has certainly not gone unnoticed either. The film made its world premiere in North America in May to audiences at the Seattle International Film Festival, which received it quite well. Film critics have also showered the film with praises, some calling it the “universal story about the power of…story,” and it has earned Warshawski a nomination for best documentary at the Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto.

And yet, with all the accolades, it is Warshawski’s East African audiences and critics that will have the most profound impact on the filmmaker’s mind. Which begs the questions: Will the film continue to hold up to Rwandan audiences as it has in the North America? Or, will its brief, but powerful allusions to the Rwandan genocides threaten its potential to resonate with the country’s audiences?

Perhaps the insight to those answers lies in the journeys that both Warshawski and Mago, along with their crews, took to get the film produced and get it to audiences at the festival. Because out of those difficult journeys grew a national conscience that is inspiring young Rwandan filmmakers to redefine how the world views their weathered, but enduring culture.


*This film review was first published in 2013.

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