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.”