Leah Warshawski didn’t set out for a movie career. “I got into it because I worked on a boat in college,” recalls the co-director of Finding Hillywood, speaking by phone from a shoot in Idaho. She was studying Japanese at the University of Hawaii when the marine coordinator of the 2003 TV movie Baywatch: Hawaiian Wedding hired her for his crew. “I actually didn’t know anything about it at all, but he hired me as his assistant for a couple of pretty big movies, and I learned a lot from him.” She decided she wanted to become a producer, so she continued working on TV shows like Survivor: Fiji and Lost and corporate videos. “My film school was working, and I’m still learning.”
A project for Microsoft brought her to Seattle and then sent her to Rwanda, where she found Hillywood. No, it’s not Rwanda’s answer to Bollywood, but a traveling film festival that screens films made by, about, and for Rwandans. Free movies are projected on an inflatable screen in rural areas—often near mass graves from Rwanda’s 1994 genocide of ethnic Tutsis by the majority Hutus.
“We didn’t believe it,” recalls Warshawski. “People show up with no shoes, in all kinds of inclement weather. They walk for miles and stand together in this precarious situation where you don’t know who you’re standing next to”—meaning Hutu perpetrator or Tutsi survivor. “There’s a huge issue of trust there still, years after the genocide. And that’s a little different than going to Sundance.”
The story compelled her. “I felt that this was the beginning of something,” says Warshawski. So she embarked on her directorial debut, returning to Rwanda in 2008 to document the festival. “We started out making a film about the film festival, but it wasn’t enough,” she explains. She expanded her focus to include the people behind the fest, from founder Eric Kabera to the young filmmakers he mentors through the Rwanda Cinema Center and Kwetu Film Institute. But the heart of Finding Hillywood is Ayuub Kasasa Mago.
A Tutsi father of four who got into filmmaking as a location scout and manager for The Last King of Scotland, now a director and an actor in his own right, Mago is the oldest of the Hillywood crew. He keeps the festival rolling day-to-day through the country’s hilly terrain (hence the festival’s name), and he’s the documentary’s conscience, a man still haunted by the horrors and hatred of Rwanda’s history. Says Warshawski, “The film is what it is because Ayuub opened up to us about his personal story: his mother [who died in the genocide], his alcoholism, his drug addiction. It took a couple of years to build up enough trust to tell that story.”
Finding Hillywood is very much a local production. Warshawski’s veteran co-director, Christopher Towey, has been her collaborator on many a Microsoft project. (He’s also the director of photography for Blackfish, a killer-whale documentary also screening at SIFF.) Her crew includes prominent local editor Eric Frith, who cut two of the most successful Seattle films of the past decade, The Heart of the Game and Eden (seen at SIFF ’06 and ’12, respectively). “We felt strongly about keeping the project in Seattle,” says Warshawski.
For the movie’s world premiere, with the filmmakers in attendance, Women in Film Seattle is raising funds to bring Mago to SIFF (see womeninfilmseattle.org to donate). There are also plans to take the doc back to Rwanda for this year’s Hillywood in July. “That’s the dream,” says Warshawski, currently working on a film about her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. “It’s called Big Sonja, because she’s about four-foot-seven,” she laughs, “but she has a huge personality and a unique and interesting story.”
There’s a link between the two projects, though Warshawski didn’t see it at first: “I didn’t realize why I was drawn to Rwanda and telling stories about genocide and survival. Through working on Finding Hillywood, I realized that it’s because of my own personal history”—i.e., her family’s Holocaust history. “I don’t know why it took me making a film about Rwanda to figure it out.”