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Finding Hillywood

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No, that's not a typo. It is "Hillywood." Which is a thriving creative movie-making center set in the hills of Rwanda--hills, as this inspiring documentary shows, whose astonishing beauty stands in stark contrast to the country's all-too-familiar recent tragic history. How, we wonder as we watch this footage, could such a travesty of all that's good and beautiful have happened here? It's a question we repeat to ourselves constantly through Leah Warshawski's hour-long film as we watch the faces of the Rwandan men, women and children, whose radiant beauty rivals that of the land in which they live.

Finding Hillywood is a film about the redemptive power of the creative spirit; about forgiveness and restitution, about acknowledging the past and learning to shape the future. The dreadful history of the genocide is never far from the surface. The film's story tracks its main character, Ayuub, a man racked with regret and guilt for his absence from his native country at the time of the genocide, for having failed to save his mother from the slaughter, and having for a while abandoned his obligation to his wife and five sons as he sought release in alcohol.

He is pulled back from the brink, first, by a minor film crew job on the making of "The Last King of Scotland." Falling in love with film, Ayuub decides that this, against all probability, will be his life's calling--and finds Hillywood, an organization devoted to the support and promotion of the work of Rwandan filmmakers. We follow them from village to village, despite all obstacles, braving tropical heat and rainstorms to set up their inflatable screen and delight rapt audiences with their films. Many have never seen a film before; all are inspired with pride in the achievements of their compatriots, and share in the healing they bring to the still-raw wound of fratricidal violence and hatred.

"Finding Hillywood" observes all this with a sympathetic documentary eye. It honors the courage and tenacity of a people ravaged by genocide, and their profound humanity. It dwells unabashedly on the beauty of the children, their eyes aglow with wonder, their faces shining. It revels in the lush colors of the landscape, the rich fall of rain, the slow flow of red rivers. It asks, always beneath a surface of joy and celebration: how could it happen here? And, more importantly even than that question, it reminds us that the human spirit is boundless in its capacity for redemption, and that it is our creativity that provides us with the means.