Hillywood: Telling the Rwandan story on film

“Hillywood.”  The difference between this moniker, adopted as a name for Rwanda’s fledgling film industry, and Hollywood, (which needs no introduction), is the letter “I”. Just that. 
Shooting of Nota Ben, a short film.
Shooting of Nota Ben, a short film.

“Hillywood.”  The difference between this moniker, adopted as a name for Rwanda’s fledgling film industry, and Hollywood, (which needs no introduction), is the letter “I”. Just that. 

Of course, we had seen similar variations of the word Hollywood from other corners of the world, beginning with India, whose local movie industry it baptized ‘Bollywood.’ In a similar vein, and closer to home, Nigeria, our West African neighbour, aptly named its movie industry ‘Nollywood.’

Even just from this naming criterion alone, it becomes quite clear that Hollywood is the gold standard. Well, in terms of international recognition of its movies at least. America is already ‘there’, so to speak. So is India. Nigeria’s Nollywood may not be ‘there’ yet, but at least it is on its feet. And walking.

Our very own Hillywood may not be ‘there’ yet, but at least it now has its own feet. Walking even!

The name, (and idea) of Hillywood accrues from the notion of Rwanda as being the ‘land of a thousand hills.’ How apt! From this alone, it should be clear that the onset of Hillywood marks the dawn of a new era in Rwanda’s movie culture; an era in which film that reflects and resonates with the country’s own history, its rich and diverse local culture now takes centre stage in our national psyche.

At the heart of this new wave of optimism is a handful of young, ambitious talents, spurred on by nothing but sheer zeal and love for country, to tell the Rwandan story to the world – on film.

AGAINST ALL ODDS

Perhaps the one man that started it all is Eric Kabera, a journalist, filmmaker and founder of the Rwanda Cinema Centre. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1970, Kabera was still living in that country in 1994, when the genocide happened; a genocide in which, sadly, 32 of his family members perished.

It is this particular loss that inspired Kabera to make 100 Days, a 2001 feature film about the genocide. It was the very first film shot in Rwanda after the genocide, and the country’s first internationally acclaimed movie.  

There followed, after 100 Days, several films on the same subject. But perhaps what set this particular movie apart from the rest was the fact that it laid the ground for the idea of a home-grown movie industry, what has come to be known intimately as “Hillywood.”

The term initially described the travelling film festival, in which Kabera took his short films and played them on an inflatable screen in seven different rural locations on seven successive days.

Explaining the rationale for the travelling theatre, he says, in an earlier interview: “We were too insular as a society. People had no idea what life was outside their own village. That was one of the catalysts for the genocide.”

On the local inclination to his films, he says: “There was no film culture to speak of in Rwanda.  “People came, they shot, (movies), and they went. I wanted to grow that culture.” Because of this, he decided to shoot these films in the local dialect, Kinyarwanda.

TURNING POINT

Like the infant it was, Hillywood started from scratch: in 100 Days, for instance, Kabera employs no single professional actor. Rather, he works with actual genocide survivors to act out the script. It was shot on location at the actual scenes of the genocide.

Besides shooting a handful of other films, Kabera went on to found the Rwanda Cinema Centre, of which he is president. The centre promotes the country’s film industry by offering training to up-and-coming filmmakers. It is also behind the annual Rwanda Film Festival. The same man is also the architect of the country’s first purpose-built, multiplex two-screen cinema.

Located in Kigali’s new 2020 estate, on a hill overlooking the city centre, the theater has been under construction since 2007, but progress is slow due to lack of funds necessary to complete the project.

JOINING THE FRAY

Across town from the Rwanda Film Centre, is the Almond Tree Films, Rwanda. It is located on a neat, little, single-storey structure at Giporoso-Kabeza-Rubirizi in Kachukiro. A young man who goes by the names John Kweri is its managing director. The artiste that he is, Kweri is not given to pomp and titles. When I meet him at the Almond Tree Films offices he insists on being addressed as art director and script advisor, not managing director.

Almond Tree Films is a movie collective that produces feature and short films, documentaries, and narratives. Its works have featured in numerous international film festivals, a fact for which Kweri is immensely proud. He says: “The films have helped spread not only Rwandan, but also African stories worldwide.”

The biggest of these projects to date has been Munyurangabo, which addresses the subject of unity and reconciliation in post-1994 Rwanda. In 2007, this feature film earned a nod at the prestigious Cannes International Film Festival in France. That same year, Munyurangabo was selected for the Berlin, Los Angeles and Amsterdam International Film Festivals.

Apart from their own in-house productions, Almond Tree Films also trains affiliate filmmakers through four different programmes that run quarterly: the K-Dox (Kigali Documentary Films), which nurtures budding documentary makers; Nib Tolens, which trains technicians, cameramen, editors, plus sound and lighting engineers; and In the Mood, a workshop for aspiring actors and actresses.

Almond Tree Films came into being in 2006, after an American filmmaker, Lee Isaac Chung, voluntarily visited Kigali to train young Rwandan film talent in the art of filmmaking. A total of fifteen young people acquired skills in filmmaking and photography. The first and biggest work of Almond Tree Films, the film Munyurangabo, came as a direct offshoot of this training.

Yves Montand Niyon Gabo

At just 24, Gabo is one of the promising talents in the Hillywood movie industry. He is a movie director and producer affiliated to Almond Tree Films Rwanda.

Gabo was born and raised in Burundi where, watching the state television, he picked an early interest in film. In 1995, his family relocated to Kigali. In high school, he pursued art and literature, in preparation for his dream career – one in film.

That career kicked off in 2009, with the release of his first short film, Maibobo, which is local slang for ‘street kid.’ It is a story of a young boy who makes a pilgrimage from the countryside to Kigali, in search of a better life. The boy is a destitute, born of a mother who was raped during the genocide, and a father he never knew. The mother dies of HIV/AIDS, leaving him entirely to his own devices.

The film is a critique of society’s treatment of street kids. While in its post-production stages, Gabo received a call from the Hubert Bals Fund from Rotterdam, which supports filmmakers from developing countries. The fund availed him money for the movie’s screening and, indeed, it was screened in more than twenty-five film festivals across the globe. It scooped two awards in Italy: the Special Jury Mention, as well the Cumse Prize at the Festival Del Ciruma Africano-Asia and Latin America in Milan, Italy. It was also nominated at the Verona African Film Festival for the Best African Short Film/Italy.

In 2009, Gabo clinched a documentary training course in Denmark, courtesy of the Danish Film Institute. He was just one among five movie makers selected from Africa. After the training, he shot the documentary, Burden of my Heart, about how people lived on, sixteen years after the genocide.

In 2010, Gabo travelled to China for shooting of The Trip, an experimental documentary.

He contends that movie-making can be challenging – even frustrating in the beginning – but vows to stay on and serve his nation.

 

ERIC KABERA FILMOGRAPHY

100 Days (2001)

The film centres on a young Tutsi maiden, Josette, who finds sanctuary in a church, but the church’s Hutu priest deceives her and agrees to spare her life only if she submits to his sexual advances.
 
Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Hotel Rwanda is the story of Paul Rusesabagina, who turns the luxury Kigali Hotel, which he manages, into a safe haven for as many Tutsi refugees as he can during the genocide. It was nominated for 26 international awards, scooping 12 of them.

 
Shake Hands with the Devil (2007)

This is a documentary film about Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, on whose shoulders the responsibility of maintaining peace in Rwanda is rested. Left with only a handful of soldiers and no support from the UN, Dallaire finds himself powerless to stop the genocide.

 

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