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The Rise Of Rwanda's Grassroots Film Industry

Sarah Geisler |
July 30, 2013 | 5:09 p.m. PDT

Special Reporter

Young women in Kigali, Rwanda participate in a filmmaking workshop (Sarah Geisler)
Young women in Kigali, Rwanda participate in a filmmaking workshop (Sarah Geisler)

There is a traditional African proverb that warns, “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” The grasses of Rwanda have known suffering. But while the elephants grew tired of fighting, the grass continued to grow. 

After the genocide in 1994, the national strategy for recovery was based upon the tenets of reconciliation, repatriation, and remembrance. In order to make sure “never again” became a reality and not just a mantra of genocides past, the government of Rwanda took reconciliation into their own hands through the tradition of Umuganda

The last Saturday of every month from 8:00 AM until 11:00 AM, Umuganda is a nationally mandated morning of community service for all citizens ages 18-65. The entire country shuts down for the morning, and each community participates in supervised projects from cleaning streets and building houses, to offering their skills (such as medical examinations) for free. 

The purpose of Umuganda is twofold: a grassroots approach to building one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, and a more metaphorical approach to fostering a new national identity, by hand. Umuganda has also contributed to the growth of another culture within Rwanda—the culture of volunteerism. 

Several weeks ago, the third annual Kigali Up! music festival attracted over 180 Rwandan volunteers. This is a huge shift from just several years ago when volunteering was viewed as something done by foreigners, something that the average Rwandan did not have the time or capacity to do. 

Volunteering is now a vital part of the legacy of the music festival. The festival attracted over 5,000 people this year, and was headlined by American jazz artist Joey Blake. The success of the festival has made it too large to function without the help of dedicated Rwandans volunteering their time in the name of celebrating their culture and city. 

And the grasses of identity are still growing. The grasses are learning empowerment. This past weekend, Rwanda held its ninth annual film festival, proving that the Rwandan film industry, known as "Hillywood" after Rwanda’s nickname, “the land of a thousand hills,” is a creative force on the rise. The festival featured the premier of the American-made documentary called “Finding Hillywood,” on film's ability to heal a nation. The U.S. Embassy in Kigali sponsored a workshop called “Girls Make Movies,” to teach young women storytelling, cinematography, and other filmmaking skills. The theme of the workshop was “Our mothers, our heroes.”

Another traditional African proverb teaches, “The jungle is stronger than the elephant.” 

Reach Sarah Geisler here.



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