Welcome to Hillywood: how Rwanda's film industry emerged from genocide's shadow

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Eric Kabera was sitting beside the pool at Kigali's Mille Collines hotel when he decided to make Rwanda's first feature film. It was 1997, the influx of foreign journalists had slowed and his work as a local fixer had dropped off w ith it.

A Rwandan Tutsi who had spent most of his life in exile in Goma, eastern Zaire, it was the lack of global attention paid to his country's genocide that concerned him, not the lack of work. A film about the genocide would, he thought, remind people across the world of what happened in three terrible months in 1994.

Together with Nick Hughes, a British film-maker, Kabera made 100 Days, the first film about the genocide. It would not be the last. After struggling for four years to get it released, 100 Days spawned a number of successors, the most notable of which, Hotel Rwanda, was based on what had taken place at the Mille Collines. Starring Don Cheadle and the British actress, Sophie Okonedo, the film was nominated for three Oscars.

The events in Rwanda are now burnt into the collective consciousness as the last genocide of the 20th century. In just 100 days, 800,000 Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were slaughtered by extremist Hutus while the rest of the world sat and watched.

A further reminder will hit cinemas next month with the release of Shake Hands With The Devil, a film based on the memoirs of General Roméo Dallaire, the commander of the undermanned and undermined UN force in Rwanda during the slaughter.

Kabera, who now wants to make a comedy, finds himself a victim of the potent profile he helped to create for the country. "It has nothing to do with genocide," he said. "It's a comedy about a beautiful girl. But I talk to investors and they say: 'a comedy in Rwanda? I don't see that'.

"That's the problem we have now. These films are sending a message about Rwanda, so at least people know where we're from, but it means that everybody who sees it sees the genocide and nothing else. It is a good introduction but we want to go beyond the genocide. We want to present a new face of Rwanda."

To do this means creating a film industry. The flow of film crews in and out of Rwanda over the past few years has created a buzz among local film-makers but it has been hard to capitalise on it. "People come, they shoot, they go," says Kabera. "There was no film culture to speak of. I wanted to grow that culture."

He started slowly, setting up the Rwanda Film Centre as a place to train young, film-makers. Two were trained in the first year, a handful the next. By 2005 Kabera felt he had enough films to put together Rwanda's first film festival. More than 100 were shown in all, most from overseas.

Not content with showing films in the capital, Kigali, Kabera decided a selection of those made by Rwandans needed to be taken out to the rural areas.

"One of the catalysts for the genocide was that people had no idea what life was like outside their own village," he says. "We were too insular."

Rwanda is marketed to the world as, "the land of a thousand hills". The travelling film festival was, somewhat inevitably, named "Hillywood". In a country with just one television station and few cultural events outside Kigali, Hillywood has taken off in a way even Kabera did not expect.

Half a dozen short films are played on an inflatable screen in seven different locations on seven successive days. Up to 10,000 people come to each show. "At 10 o'clock we finish and all these people are saying 'More! More! Give us more films!' But we don't have any more," said Kabera.

Topping the bill this year was Hey, Mr DJ! about an arrogant young disc jockey who discovers he is HIV positive. Others looked at issues ranging from poverty and education to love and friendship, and were made in Rwanda's most widely spoken language, Kinya-rwanda. Hillywood has also had its first brush with Hollywood. The Tribeca Film Festival in New York, set up by Robert De Niro, celebrated Rwandan cinema in May. Three short films were shown – Scars Of My Days by Gilbert Ndahayo, A Love Letter To My Country by Thierry Dushimirimana and Behind These Walls by Pierre Lalumiere Kayitana – all of which portrayed Rwanda as it is now, rather than the genocide.

The event coincided with a visit to the US by Rwanda's President, Paul Kagame, who was accompanied to the film festival by Bill Clinton who said the films were an example of a, "modern rich culture rooted in who they are without denying where they have been; looking toward where they can go and what they can become."

Kabera and his team at the Rwanda Film Centre are now trying to put together a schedule for next year's Hillywood and the Kigali film festival. Foreign films, many of them African, will be on the bill alongside some made by Rwandans. Bamako, a Malian film that has won rave reviews in the US and the UK, is pencilled in for the opening night at Kigali's five-star Serena hotel. Despite the progress that has been made in the last 10 years, Rwanda still does not have a purpose-built cinema.

Kabera is trying to rectify that. More than 30 workmen are constructing a cinema in Kigali's new 2020 estate, on a hill high above the city centre. A grand looking new building, situated in a square just around the corner, was Kabera's first choice but the owners of the new estate decided to turn it into a church instead.

Standing in the middle of the building site, Kabera shows where the main auditorium seating 300 people will be. "And up there," he says, pointing to an as yet unbuilt first floor, "there will be a pastry and coffee shop, while over there we'll have a training centre."

The only problem is money. Kabera estimates it will cost around $600,000 (£300,000) to build the whole cinema and he only has $100,000 so far. When the money runs out building work will come to a stop.

"I wanted to get started though," he says. "I hope it will be easier to get more money once we've started."

He plans to visit the UK in September and has already considered asking the journalists he worked for a decade ago for a donation. "I worked with Fergal Keane and George Alagiah at the BBC.

"For people to go beyond the genocide is very difficult. But I think people will realise Rwandans can do comedy.

"We can't forget our past – it's in our every day lives – but we have to choose. Do we get stuck with it or do we get on and face the prospect of a better future?"

A nation's trauma filmed

100 Days (2001)

Released four years after filming, the film centres on Josette, a young Tutsi girl. She finds sanctuary in a church, supposedly protected by UN forces but the church's Hutu priest deceives Josette and agrees to spare her life only if she submits to his sexual advances.

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

The film was nominated for 26 awards, winning 12. Paul Rusesabagina turns the luxury Kigali hotel he manages into a safe haven for as many Tutsi refugees as he can, saving many lives. One reviewer termed this film an "African Schindler's List".

Shake Hands With The Devil (2007)

An award-winning documentary film about Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, the man given the responsibility of maintaining peace in Rwanda. Despite his best efforts, left with only a handful of soldiers and no support from UN headquarters, Dallaire was powerless to stop the genocide. This "hard-hitting" film, based on his memoirs, promises to be "the most powerful documentary produced about the Rwandan genocide".