Leah Warshawski is one of the producers and directors of Finding Hillywood, a documentary about the use of film for healing in post-genocide Rwanda.
What elements in your childhood and early years pointed you toward film? Toward documentary film in particular?
Well, actually, I never thought that I’d be a filmmaker growing up. My father (author of Shaking The Money Tree, a popular film funding book) geared me away from filmmaking and my major was Japanese. I went to college in Hawaii and worked on a boat in college. I was part of a few films on the water, and then I was hooked. It was not the path I thought I would take in life, but I’m very grateful for how things turned out.
What is it about your character and background that makes it possible for you to oversee and direct this kind of artistic project?
I like a challenge, and once I get focussed on something I believe in, I won’t give up. It takes dedication. Finding Hillywood took us six years to complete because we were always raising money to keep working. I still haven’t been paid for any of my work on the project—everything we raised went to make the film.
But I love the film and our characters and the journey it took us on. We’re still learning. Before we started working on the film I had traveled extensively in Africa for other jobs and that travel experience gave me the confidence to work on a film on the other side of the world.
What was your most beneficial educational experience? What or who in your training had the most—and best—influence on you, as a filmmaker and as a human being?
I think travel is an education, and traveling/working in other countries was very beneficial to me. I’ve had many mentors in my life who taught me everything I know, including my parents, who’ve all made me who I am today. I’m still learning every single day. I worked with incredible watermen in Hawaii, and they’re the reason I love and respect the water so much. And my husband is the reason I love the mountains so much.
What was the most mesmerizing experience for you while making Finding Hillywood?
Going to our first “Hillywood” screening in 2007—sitting on top of our production van as the sun went down on a crowd of 2,000 Rwandans waiting for the movies to start. At that moment we knew that we needed to share this experience with the rest of the world.
Do you have any thoughts on why film can be so healing?
Film can heal by allowing people to tell their own stories. And it’s therapeutic for audiences to watch films together and to suspend all of their other duties and beliefs for the time the movie plays. It’s a powerful experience to watch films with thousands of people around you.
You’ve worked on Baywatch, Lost, and Survivor. Did any of these shows prepare you for Finding Hillywood?
Every job is a learning experience for me, and each job prepares me for the next one. One of our executive producers for Finding Hillywood is Harold Perrineau, who I met on Lost.
Are new models of film financing emerging which can enable ordinary Rwandans and citizens of other less privileged countries to produce their own films?
Well, even citizens of “privileged” countries have a rough time producing films because financing is getting harder and harder. Grants are really competitive in every country around the world. It forces people to get creative about funding and think outside the box. .
We actually co-founded the website http://rwandafilm.org to try and help filmmakers in Rwanda connect and find work and funding for their projects.
Are there any books, films, shows, or albums that have deeply influenced your development as a filmmaker?
Movies/Shows: War/Dance, On Freddy Roach, and Last Train Home.
Books: Shaking the Money Tree
If you had an artist’s mission statement, what would it be?
Work hard, play hard, give back.
Were you surprised that your debut feature got so much positive press?
We worked really hard to get positive press—it didn’t just show up on our doorstep. Because we didn’t have a theatrical release we’re still trying to get reviews and press from major national outlets (LA Times, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, NYT, etc.). We did as much as we could without a marketing budget. If we had more money we could afford more publicity. We’re happy with the positive reviews and press, but we worked really hard to make a great film.
Tell us about your current projects.
Currently, we are working on http://rwandafilm.org and trying to find a local Rwandan organization to take over the site.
We’re also producing another feature documentary about a tiny woman with huge impact— BIG SONIA. (http://www.bigsonia.com)