West Seattle Filmmaker Finds 'Hillywood'

By Hannah Danforth

West Seattle resident, Lea Warshawski had a non traditional start to her film career. With a combination of kismet, hard work, perseverance, and passion, Leah has created a touching and enlightening documentary on the Rwandan film industry.

Leah got her start working for the marine department coordinating boats and crews for large productions in Hawaii while attending college. Mentors and teachers gave Leah a chance to work on features like Lost and Baywatch even though she had no experience. Working with these crews encouraged Leah to be a producer with a broader skill set. She began working on whatever she could find, including reality shows like Survivor and short documentaries, one of which was in Rwanda.

In 2007, Leah, her husband Post Supervisor Todd Soliday and Director of Photography Chris Towey, of the renown Blackfish documentary, were hired to do a series of international documentary style videos. As contract freelancers, they would travel and hire local film crews to work with. In Rwanda, the crew they hired were also local filmmakers who told them about a traveling film festival called Hillywood, due to Rwanda's nickname of "Land of a Thousand Hills.” Hillywood’s desire to show the films to as large of an audience as possible, especially ones made by Rwandan filmmakers, are shown on a large inflatable screen that travels to rural areas throughout the country.

Leah’s discovery of Hillywood inspired her to do her own personal feature length documentary. “There’s very few resources with very little funding. They sort of scrap things together making it a perfect underdog story that was intriguing and relatable. We identified with them as filmmakers.”

As they began working on their film about a film festival, they got to know Ayub, the manager and ringleader of Hillywood, very well. Leah then reset her focus on the personal stories of the people and filmmakers of the Rwandan film festival. “Ayub is such an engaging person, a great father, and his own stories of personal redemption and struggles inspire and affect everybody. He is responsible for creating an incredible sense of community for the entire country with the history of genocide always present. Knowing him has made us all better.” Taking almost seven years, Leah slowly pieced together donations from friends and family, a kickstarter campaign, a couple of grants and a lot of personal investment with time and money to finally complete her film, Finding Hillywood.

In addition to finishing her documentary, hosting screenings and working on another film, Big Sonia, Leah helped develop Rwandafilm.org. Along with BePeace and The Academy of Motion Pictures, they created a website for local filmmakers to find work and connect with internationals who are looking to go to Rwanda and film. “Rwanda is stunning, the light is gorgeous, it’s the most beautiful landscape to make a film. If you want to go there and film or do any work there you can look up resumes and email people directly and see what else they’ve worked on. There’s so many filmmakers and so much talent. We just wanted to help sustain their careers just like we want to sustain ours.”

A special screening of Finding Hillywood will be showing at The Harvard Exit Theater July 7th. For tickets please visit: https://gathr.us/screening/8110

For more information please visit: http://www.rwandafilm.org/ and http://findinghillywood.com/

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