The power of film to unite, from Rwanda to Seattle

Rwandan filmmakers — and "Finding Hillywood" interns — Richmond Runanira and Christian Bishika on set. March 2008. (Photo by Guido Ronge)

A new film about Rwanda’s burgeoning film industry shows how the collective moviegoing experience has the power to heal the scars of genocide.

I love movies. I’m a sucker for any kind of stories — from the latest bestseller to my Mom’s wine-fueled tales of her wild family. But there’s something particularly seductive about movies. Film is a concentrated form of storytelling, unique because it’s best experienced communally — often by large groups of strangers who may have nothing more in common than a free afternoon.

The power of that communal storytelling is what inspired local filmmakers Leah Warshawski and Chris Towey to travel to east Africa to make “Finding Hillywood” which documents the rise of a traveling film festival in Rwanda.  The film premieres at the Seattle International Film Festival next week.

Warshawski and Towey stumbled across Hillywood while freelancing on a corporate shoot in Rwanda. They were looking to borrow equipment from the Rwandan Film Institute and in the process met filmmakers deeply passionate about building an industry in their country.

“I’m really drawn to stories of survival and ingenuity,” says Warshawski over the phone from a Florida airport — she’s currently freelancing to help raise further funds for the film, “people that are doing everything that they can to overcome all the odds not in their favor.”

The Hillywood screen inflates at a rural screening site in Rwanda. (Photo courtesy Leah Warshawski)
The Hillywood screen inflates at a rural screening site in Rwanda. (Photo courtesy Leah Warshawski)

And Hillywood has had plenty of odds to overcome. The festival, which runs for about two weeks in July, travels throughout the (“hilly”) Rwandan countryside with inflatable screens and a collection of films created by Rwandan filmmakers.

Film festival volunteers have to negotiate to borrow power from local shops to run the projectors, vans crash on winding dirt roads and torrential rains constantly threaten to delay outdoor screenings in patchy fields (though they say they’ve never cancelled on account of rain).

But the heart of this “movie about movies” is less about road show antics and more about the power of film. From domestic violence and forbidden relationships to the lasting impacts of the Rwandan genocide, Hillywood’s films — most created by new filmmakers — make for intense screenings in poor areas where many villagers are watching their first movie ever.

“People have to talk, they have to sit and look at each other while they watch these films that are packed with relevant material,” says Towey in his home in Edmonds, “It brings everybody together, it establishes community.”

Watching “Finding Hillywood,” which features clips from Rwandan movies screened at the festival and introduces us to eager young directors, really does feel like watching the birth of a film culture.

And while “Hillywood,” which produces a handful of films a year, may not be the next “Nollywood” (Nigeria’s mega film industry) its impact is meaningful — maybe even more so in a region that has suffered so much trauma.

"Finding Hillywood" directors Chris Towey and Leah Warshawski on location in Rwanda January 2010. (Photo by Todd Soliday)
“Finding Hillywood” directors Chris Towey and Leah Warshawski on location in Rwanda January 2010. (Photo by Todd Soliday)

“Cinema is a therapeutic art form,” says Washawski, who is now partnering with an organization called Bpeace, to help bring film industry jobs to conflict-affected countries.

The footage Warshawski and Towey have gathered from Hillywood screenings highlight the universal draw of film. People walk for miles in the rain to get to screenings and young Rwandan filmmakers are greeted as rock stars by throngs of excited kids. Then, the screen inflates, the sun goes down and we see the light of Rwanda’s own stories flickering across thousands faces.

As I embark on my own SIFF binge (and I’m talking two, maybe three, in a row, every-night-of-the-week binging here) “Finding Hillywood” is a reminder of why I love movies: because they unite us all — from Kigali to Seattle — as strangers in the dark, faces upturned, searching for what we have in common.

“Finding Hillywood” shows at the Egyptian Theater 7PM, May 29 and 4PM June 5. Advanced tickets here.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at