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'Finding Hillywood'

Finding Hillywood

Movies can be more than entertainment. They can be valuable, even indispensable tools for social change, and they can give eloquent voice to the issues and concerns of an entire nation.

Plenty of lip service is paid to those notions, but they’re seldom seen in action. This makes Finding Hillywood, a documentary on the Rwandan film industry filmed by a largely Seattle-based crew, worth its weight in gold—and an award winner to boot.

A much-loved entry at SIFF 2013, Finding Hillywood recently netted its makers an Audience Award for Favorite Documentary at the Napa Valley Film Festival. It’s only the most recent accolade for the movie, which also won awards at festivals in Montreal and Eugene, Oregon last year. The film follows the development of the nascent Rwandan motion picture industry as a small group of Rwandan men and women make films in their own language, for their own people. This is no dream factory a la nearby Nigeria’s Nollywood: Hillywood films tell real-world stories about Rwandan lives and culture, meant to inspire hope in locals and to heal the lasting scars of the country’s war-torn past.

Finding Hillywood co-producer/co-director Leah Warshawski chatted with us about her film’s recent acclaim, and the journey involved in filming it.

The story behind Finding Hillywood is a fascinating one. How did the project begin for you?

I go all over the world producing different kinds of film content, and [co-producer/co-director] Chris Towey and I were in Rwanda doing freelance work on a different job. Everywhere we go, we try to hire some local crew, so we were asking them, “What else do you do here when you’re not working?” And they told us about Hillywood. They also asked us to come back and help teach them film classes. The idea of people standing in a stadium and watching a movie for the first time, in their own language, in a country that’s as unique and beautiful as Rwanda, was just one of those ideas that stuck.

We came back to Seattle, and a couple of months later we were still thinking that we’d like to go back [to Rwanda] and teach classes. That’s kind of how it all started—that one idea of what Hillywood was, before we even saw it in action.

It must have been really interesting to be there, witnessing the birth of an entire country’s film industry.

Yeah, it really was. We were there to film the bulk of the Hillywood Film Festival in, I think it was its fourth or fifth year. And it’s the tenth anniversary of the Festival in 2014, so we weren’t there for the first year, but we were there near the beginning.

Initially, all of the films that played at Hillywood had bigger messages, bigger meaning—they were very serious. But now they’re starting to make documentaries and animation and cartoons. They’re being more creative, and thinking more outside the box. It took us six years to finish our film, and over the course of those six years, we’re been keeping track of what’s happening there. It’s really incredible what they’ve been able to do with very little.

How has the Rwandan film industry fared overall since you completed the documentary?

We were there a couple of months after our SIFF premiere, and we’d translated our movie into their local language (Kenya/Rwanda). It had a number of different screenings in the city and in the country. The reality is, like many film festivals and bureaucracies around the world, they’re really struggling. 

But the industry is growing. The government is now recognizing that there’s monetary potential in the film industry. A lot of government organizations are getting involved, and hopefully they’ll start giving some more money to the filmmakers and filmmaking within the country. And there are a lot more training programs now. Rwandan people are learning technical [filmmaking] skills, post-production, editing, graphics. We’re trying to raise funds to go back in July for the Hillywood Festival’s tenth anniversary, to help out with the Hillywood portion and make sure the guys actually get paid for doing the work.

Finding Hillywood earned laurels from the Napa Valley Film Festival recently. What was that like?

We just won an audience award there for Best Documentary. We were up against a lot of incredible films, and we really didn’t think we had a chance, so we booked our tickets to leave that day and didn’t stay for the ceremony. As we landed in SeaTac, the first text message I got was from my dad, who was a Juror for the Narrative section, saying that we’d won. He’d just gone to the ceremony by chance, and he told me he literally fell out of his chair when they announced it [laughs].

The movie is an hour long, and there seems to be a wealth of material beyond what ended up in the final cut of the movie. Will there be a DVD release?

Yes! We have so much great footage that didn’t end up in the film. We went back to show the film and we filmed that trip, and there was a music video we made for the song in the end credits. There are quite a few extras. We’re just waiting for those to be put together and hopefully the DVD will be ready in the spring. I’m really excited about it, because I haven’t seen the extra footage in awhile.

[Finding Hillywood screens at the SIFF Film Center on March 30. More information can be found at findinghillywood.com, and at a website started by the Finding Hillywood team, rwandafilm.org.]

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