As a commemoration period begins today on the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, here’s an inspiring story about a country whose film industry we don’t often hear about. U.S. filmmaker Leah Warshawski has helped to create a free online resource to streamline producing films in Rwanda. The outreach project, RwandaFilm.org, was built in partnership with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, nonprofit network Bpeace, and the Rwandan government to connect local filmmakers with one another and with job opportunities. Warshawski embarked on the project after making her documentary, Finding Hillywood (see trailer below). Focused on the pioneers of Rwanda’s film industry, it won the Documentary Feature Audience Award at the Napa Valley Film Festival last November. It previously premiered at the Seattle Film Festival. I caught up with Warshawski recently from Idaho, where Finding Hillywood was playing the Sun Valley Film Festival. She explained that she’d been in Rwanda in 2007 on another project and was told about the Rwandan Film Festival, which brings movies to large audiences around the country on inflatable screens, and how “thousands of people stand in a stadium” to watch them. Warshawski, who has done crew work on TV series including Lost and Survivor and features Along Came Polly and He’s Just Not That Into You, said it was “intriguing enough to make a movie about” and that led in to starting RwandaFilm.org.
Hillywood gets its name thanks to Rwanda’s moniker as the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” and movies that have shot there include 1988’s Gorillas In The Mist; 100 Days, produced by Rwanda Film Fest founder Eric Kabera; 2004’s Hotel Rwanda; 2005’s Beyond The Gates; 2007’s Shake Hands With The Devil; 2012 award-winning documentary Rising From Ashes; and HBO Emmy nominee Sometimes In April. As for filmmaking by locals, Rwanda is unlikely to become Nollywood anytime soon, but is creating a boutique industry with more movies traveling to festivals. The first feature film written, directed and produced by a Rwandan, Grey Matter, won a Special Jury Mention in Tribeca in 2011. Many of the works that are made by locals have tended to reflect on the genocide which is estimated to have killed up to 1 million Rwandans. Warshawski tells me there has been a gradual move away from that, with training programs popping up and the government referring to the film industry as “the film economy.” They’re “starting to see the financial potential,” she says.
Although she was voted “Most likely to save the world” in high school, Warshawski says she doesn’t see RwandaFilm.org as a “charity project.” Rather, “We identify with the filmmakers in Rwanda because we are doing the same thing, we are always hustling, always trying to scrape it together.” Finding Hillywood is repped by the UK’s MercuryMedia for TV rights, and The Cinema Guild in the U.S. is selling it to libraries and colleges. The film is still looking for a domestic broadcast partner and has joined Gathr, the U.S. theatrical on-demand service. “We’re trying to make our money back for making the film,” Warshawski says. In the meantime, with help from Bpeace and AMPAS, who provide support, manpower and funds for RwandaFilm.org, Warshawski says she just hopes it can grow. “It seems like with more filmmakers coming out of East Africa, it would be beneficial to be knowledgeable about what’s happening there.”