Leah Warshawski’s documentary Finding Hillywood looks at the power of film to change and heal, not just an individual, but entire communities. Still traumatized from the genocide that left 20% of the population dead within a 100 day span, modern-day Rwanda is in a complex emotional state. One of the paths to healing, however, is to get people to talk about their pain, often in the form of stories and, specifically for this documentary, films as they are created by Rwandans, for Rwandans.
From the creation of filmmaking courses to the first Rwandan feature films, Finding Hillywood tells the story of a film industry borne not of what it can do financially, but of what the art form can do for the soul. Thus a film industry grows in Rwanda, even if many don’t know that it exists. Which is where the Hillywood Film Festival comes in, a traveling film festival that goes from town to town, setting up public, outdoor screenings, no matter the weather, to showcase the cinematic efforts of Rwandans.
And in the middle of it all is Ayuub Kasasa Mago, a Rwandan suffering from feelings of guilt over the death of his mother during the genocide, and his own history of drug abuse and tragedy after the fact. Just as his wife and family came to inspire and save him, so too did he find a form of salvation in film, working in various capacities, before becoming the driving force behind the Hillywood Film Festival. While it is certainly true that all those that work with him are a big part of why Hillywood succeeds, it is Ayuub’s passion for the project that truly motivates.
The universal nature at the core of all of this is why it works. And not just from the perspective of human to human universality, but the healing properties of film and filmmaking and, more so, the storytelling that gives life to the medium. For what is it all really but another art form meant to communicate stories, often giving voice to ideas and perspectives that others may share, but didn’t know until someone spoke up? Suddenly gaps between people become smaller, as the commonalities become clearer, and healing can begin. Conversation on challenging topics can finally be broached, less as a reaction to the topics themselves, but the film that presents them.
On top of that, the logistical nightmares of not just putting on a film festival, but a traveling film festival, are shared the world over. Rwanda puts its own flavor on it, but what festival out there hasn’t run into workers who aren’t up to snuff, plans that fall apart due to a lack of screening space or even weather problems? In that sense, even for those in the film festival world, there is much to relate to. It’s incredible how little difference truly exists when the goal is to screen a film in a public space.
For me, Finding Hillywood is a cynicism killer, and a reminder how incredible the medium of film can be. As we whine about seemingly disposable stories filmed for multimillions of dollars, it’s easy to forget that the right film, telling the right story, being seen at just the right time, can change someone’s life forever. Ayuub Kasasa Mago and his Hillywood crew have absorbed that knowledge into their very being, and continue to spread the power of film any and everywhere they can. It’s inspiring, period.
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