Helen Hill

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Helen Hill in New Orleans, 2006

Helen Wingard Hill (May 9, 1970 – January 4, 2007) was an American animation filmmaker and social activist who lived in New Orleans, Louisiana. When her final film, The Florestine Collection, was released in 2011, curators and critics described her as "one of the most well-regarded experimental animators of her generation."[1]

In the pre-dawn hours of January 4, 2007, Hill was murdered by a random intruder in her New Orleans home. Her death (which was one of six murders in New Orleans that day), coupled with the murder a week before of well-known New Orleans musician Dinerral Shavers, sparked widespread civic outrage in New Orleans, and inspired thousands to march against the rampant and continuing post-Katrina violence in New Orleans. This "March Against Violence on City Hall" drew significant press coverage throughout the United States and the rest of the world.


Helen Hill was a native of Columbia, South Carolina, where she lived until graduating from Dreher High School in 1988. She identified herself as a Southerner (though after marrying her husband Paul Gailiunas, a Canadian citizen originally from Edmonton, Alberta, she later became a dual US-Canadian citizen), and had deep roots in her home city of Columbia. Her mother, Becky, named her Helen Wingard Hill after her own mother, Helen Addison Wingard, another Columbian.

Helen Hill began creating short animated films at age eleven. After the documentary filmmaker Stan Woodward visited her fifth-grade class, she made a stop-motion Super 8 film that she entitled The House of Sweet Magic (1981). Made on a tabletop at home, it shows a toy dinosaur attacking a gingerbread house. That same year she and her classmates (Shack Allison, Kevin Curtis, Cissy Fowler, Brannon Gregg, and Creighton Waters, assisted by Susan Leonard of the South Carolina Arts Commission and teacher Penelope Rawl) made another Super 8 movie as part of a statewide filmmaking-in-the-classroom initiative. Quacks, a live action film with a musical track recorded separately on audiocassette tape, is a comic vignette featuring a person in a duck costume interacting with school children at their bus stop.

Hill earned her A.B. at Harvard University in 1992, where she majored in English and minored in Visual and Environmental Studies, the academic department housing film-making. While at Harvard she made the 16mm animated short "Rain Dance" as well as two other animated films.

After graduating from Harvard in 1992, Hill and fellow Harvard '92 classmate Paul Gailiunas—merely a close friend at the time- headed to New Orleans for the summer, drawn to the city's vibrant arts and music culture and its progressive social sensibility. That summer they fell in love, and Hill and Gailiunas were married in Columbia, SC two years later.

Hill further developed her artistic work while completing her Masters of Fine Arts degree at California Institute of the Arts. Upon her graduation from CalArts in 1995, she moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada where Gailiunas was attending Dalhousie University Medical School. Hill continued to create films and teach film animation at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (now NSCAD University) and at the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative (AFCOOP). Hill and Gailiunas lived in Halifax's culturally diverse but economically depressed North End (which she paid tribute to in her 2004 film Bohemian Town).

On December 17, 2000, the couple returned to New Orleans with their cat Nola and their pot-bellied pig Rosie, settling in the Mid-City district. On October 15, 2004, Hill gave birth to their son, Francis Pop.

Hill continued to teach animation through the New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC) and through the New Orleans Film Collective, which she co-founded with other members of the local film community.[2]

In August 2005, Hill and family were temporarily displaced and lost most of their possessions due to the Hurricane Katrina levee failures, which flooded their Mid City home along with some 80% of the city. She relocated to Columbia, South Carolina for a year, where the family was in the company of relatives. Despite the slow rebuilding process in the post-Katrina months, Hill persuaded her husband, in part by rallying friends to participate in an ingenious postcard campaign, to return to New Orleans with their son. She continued both her art and her activism, which was focused on helping local grassroots endeavors aimed at rebuilding the city. She was a visiting artist at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.


Memorial items outside Hill & Gailiunas' house

Helen Hill was murdered about 5:30 in the morning on January 4, 2007 by an unknown intruder in her home in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. Her husband was shot three times and survived; their toddler son was uninjured. Shortly before, the alleged intruder had attempted a robbery of a bed and breakfast just a few houses down the street, and the police were questioning the owners when they heard gunshots at Hill's house.

As of 2013, the New Orleans Police Department has made no arrests in the case, despite a $15,000 Crimestoppers reward being in effect for any information leading to an indictment.

Hill's murder was one of a spate of killings in the first week of 2007 in New Orleans, prompting civic outrage that culminated in a march on City Hall on January 11, 2007.[3][4][5]

Film and artwork[edit]

Marchers outside City Hall with sign remembering Helen Hill

In filmmaking technique, Hill took much of her inspiration for two-dimensional silhouette puppets from animation pioneer Lotte Reiniger. Hill's films also incorporated many other animation techniques, such as three-dimensional stop motion, three-dimensional puppets, cel cycles, and drawing-on-film. In the mid-1990s, Hill became attracted to more do-it-yourself methods of filmmaking, such as hand processing and tinting or toning images by hand. In 1999 and 2000, she attended Phil Hoffman's Independent Imaging Retreat in Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada, to develop her hand-processing technical skills. Hand-crafted film techniques found their way into her film work, most notably in Mouseholes (1999) and Madame Winger Makes a Film (2001).

In addition to her body of work in film, Hill took on other roles from time to time, curating The Ladies' Film Bee program at the 2000 Splice This! Super 8 Film Festival (Toronto) and compiling/editing a reference book of hand-crafted film techniques (Recipes for Disaster: a Handcrafted Film Cookbooklet 2001, revised 2004). After Hurricane Katrina, Hill's interests in film expanded into archiving, and she gave several lectures at CalArts and other schools promoting do-it-yourself techniques for archiving and restoring motion picture film. The moving image archivist Kara Van Malssen worked with Hill as part of her New York University master's thesis, Disaster Planning and Recovery: Post-Katrina Lessons for Mixed Media Collections.[6]

Hill was an award-winning filmmaker and was featured in several high-profile film festivals (such as the Ann Arbor Film Festival). In 2004, she was awarded a Media Arts Fellowship Grant by the Rockefeller Foundation for her achievements in film. She used this award to begin production on The Florestine Collection, an animated film inspired by a collection of about 100 hand-sewn dresses she found in a garbage pile in New Orleans in 2001. This film was completed by Paul Gailiunas and friends and was awarded the Short Documentary Award at the 2011 DOXA Documentary Film Festival.[7]

In 2007, Harvard Film Archive established the Helen Hill Collection, a repository of films, drawings, photographs, art works, writings, music, and ephemera. Ten of Hill's animated and experimental works are available for archival loan and exhibition as a compilation reel of 16mm film prints.

In March 2008, New York University organized "Anywhere: A Tribute to Artist and Activist Helen Hill," an evening of newly preserved work by and about Hill. The screening opened the 6th Orphan Film Symposium in New York. NYU's Department of Cinema Studies, the University of South Carolina's Film Studies Program, and the Nickelodeon Theatre presented the inaugural Helen Hill Awards to filmmakers Naomi Uman and Jimmy Kinder for their works "affirming Helen Hill's artistic legacy, lived values, and everyday passions."[8]

On December 30, 2009, the Librarian of Congress named Hill's film Scratch and Crow (1995) to the National Film Registry, a list of aesthetically, historically, and culturally significant American motion pictures. The Library's news release stated: "Helen Hill’s student film was made at the California Institute of the Arts. Consistent with the short films she made from age 11 until her death at 36, this animated short work is filled with vivid color and a light sense of humor. It is also a poetic and spiritual homage to animals and the human soul."[9]


Helen Hill in New Orleans, 1993 (Her nickname was Chicken.)

Hill produced the following films:[10]

  • The House of Sweet Magic (1981)
  • Quacks (1981, with classmates at Brennen Elementary School)
  • Rain Dance (1990, reconstructed 2007)[11]
  • Upperground Show (1991)
  • Vessel (1992)
  • No Smoking in the Theater (1995)
  • The World's Smallest Fair (1995)
  • Scratch and Crow (1995)
  • Tunnel of Love (1996)
  • "Fast Fax" for CBC-TV’s StreetCents (1997–1998)
  • I Love Nola (1998)
  • Your New Pig is Down the Road (1999)
  • Mouseholes (1999)
  • Film for Rosie (2000)
  • Madame Winger Makes a Film (2001)
  • Five Spells (2001)
  • [New Orleans Video Access Center poetry project film] (ca. 2002–05)
  • Termite Light (2003, with Courtney Egan)
  • Rosie Wonders What to Wear (2003)[12]
  • film for Haley Lou Haden's By Bread Alone (ca. 2003)
  • film for Haden's puppet theater One Life, Magic Cone (ca. 2003)
  • Gothtober Baby (2004)[13]
  • Bohemian Town (2004)
  • Halloween in New Orleans (2005)[14]
  • 16mm blowup, flood-damaged Super 8 home movies (2006)[15]
  • Cleveland Street Gap (2006, with Courtney Egan)
  • A Monster in New Orleans (2006)[16]
  • More than forty Super 8 films, home movies (early 1990s - January 2007)
  • The Florestine Collection, a film by Helen Hill, completed by Paul Gailiunas (2011). Jury Award, Ann Arbor Film Festival; Short Documentary Award, DOXA Documentary Film Festival (Vancouver).

In 2008, Peripheral Produce, a Portland-based distributor of experimental films, released the compilation DVD The House of Sweet Magic: Films By Helen Hill. The compilation includes: Tunnel of Love; Madame Winger Makes a Film; Scratch and Crow; Your New Pig is Down the Road; The World's Smallest Fair; Vessel; Film for Rosie; Mouseholes; Bohemian Town.[17]

Interview with filmmaker Helen Hill, March 27, 2006.

Also, Helen Hill appears in

  • Film Farm Dance (2001, Becka Barker)
  • Phil’s Film Farm (2002, John Porter; dedicated to Helen Hill)
  • Working Portraits (2005, Maïa Cybelle Carpenter)
  • Orphan Ist. View (2006, Lauren Heath, Erin Curtis, and Mike Johns)[18]
  • [Home Movie Day New Orleans] (2006, Kelli Shay Hicks)
  • Interview with Helen Hill at the 5th Orphan Film Symposium (2006, Lauren Heath, Erin Curtis, and Mike Johns), in which she answers the question "What is an orphan film?"
  • Helen Hill: Celebrating a Life in Film (2007, SCETV)[19]
  • "One Year Later, New Orleans Grieves for Artists," 20-min. report by Noah Adams, All Things Considered, NPR, December 25, 2007.[20]
  • "Storm of Murder," CBS 48 Hours Mystery (October 13, 2007)[21]


  • Writer Edward Sanders (of the band The Fugs) published "Ode to Helen Hill" (2007), a 3,000-word "biographic poem on the New Orleans filmmaker," in Woodstock Journal.[22]
  • Helen LaBelle (1957), an animated film by Lotte Reiniger, was restored by the Deutsches Filminstitut in 2008; the restoration's end credit reads in part: "in memory of Helen Hill (1970-2007), animator and Lotte Reiniger devotee."
  • Francis Pop's Hallowe'en Parade (2007, Francis Pop Gailiunas and Paul Gailiunas) is dedicated to Helen.[23]
  • The second season of the HBO television drama series Treme, shot in New Orleans, included a story line about the real-life murders of Helen Hill and Dinerral Shavers.

Activism and songwriting[edit]

Helen Hill was a lifelong peace activist and advocate of several grassroots social justice causes. Together with her husband, Dr. Paul Gailiunas, she helped initiate the Free Food Organization in Halifax in 1996. This later became a part of Food Not Bombs, which is still in operation. Also with her husband, she initiated several anti-smoking and anti-tobacco sponsorship campaigns. She was also a vegan and an avid animal rights activist, lending her support to rescue sanctuaries for pot-bellied pigs and other abandoned pets.

Whilst living in Halifax, Paul formed a band called Piggy: The Calypso Orchestra of the Maritimes which recorded six albums between 1995 and 2001.[24] Helen co-wrote the anarchist song "Emma Goldman" on their 1999 album Don't Stop the Calypso: Songs of Love and Liberation. After Helen and Paul moved to New Orleans, Paul started a new band called The Troublemakers and re-released the song "Emma Goldman" on their 2004 album Here Come The Troublemakers.[24] Proclaiming the motto "It's your duty as a citizen to troublemake," other songs on the album include "International Flag Burning Day."[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Quotation from Los Angeles Filmforum's description of The Florestine Collection screening at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood on December 11, 2011. The 49th Annual Ann Arbor Film Festival Tour – Program B See also the 2011 Ann Arbor Film Festival program
  2. ^ Biography on Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative site
  3. ^ Brendan McCarthy, "Marigny victims worked to leave mark on city," New Orleans Times-Picayune, Jan. 6, 2007
  4. ^ Laura Maggi, "Enough! Thousands march to protest city's alarming murder rate", New Orleans Times-Picayune, Jan. 12, 2007
  5. ^ "Life in New Orleans turns tragic for Canadians" The Globe & Mail, January 6, 2007
  6. ^ Disaster Planning and Recovery: Post-Katrina Lessons for Mixed Media Collections
  7. ^ DOXA 2011 Awards
  8. ^ The Orphan Film Symposium's Helen Hill Award is described at NYU.edu/Orphans. In 2010, the symposium's award again went to two animators for their individual achievements in independent filmmaking: Danielle Ash and Jodie Mack. Also, in 2008, the Nickelodeon Theatre/Columbia Film Society announced a Helen Hill Media Education Center will be added to the renovation of the Nickelodeon's future home, the Fox Theatre on Main Street, in Columbia, South Carolina.
  9. ^ http://www.loc.gov/film/NFR2009.pdf
  10. ^ Source: Dan Streible, "In memoriam Helen Hill," Film History 19, no. 4 (2007), pp. 438-41.
  11. ^ Preservation History
  12. ^ Gothtober
  13. ^ Gothtober
  14. ^ Gothtober
  15. ^ Audio, Helen Hill introducing this film
  16. ^ Gothtober
  17. ^ Peripheral Produce Catalog
  18. ^ View
  19. ^ Southern Lens, SCETV.org
  20. ^ NPR.org audio
  21. ^ CBS 48 Hours Mystery (October 13, 2007)
  22. ^ Woodstock Journal
  23. ^ Gothtober
  24. ^ a b John Clark (14 May 2007). "Remembering Helen Hill: A New Orleans community comes together after the murder of a friend and activist". Divergences. 
  25. ^ Louisiana Music Factory. "Here Come The Troublemakers". 

External links[edit]