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October 28, 2011

A Celebration of Helen Hill

Helen Hill (1971-2007) was a luminary artist dedicated to a mode of handcrafted and lushly imaginative cinema whose all-too-fleeting life marked a high point in the history of independent American animation. Hill began making films at a remarkably early age, directing her first short when she was only ten, and steadily honing her craft at high school in her native South Carolina and then at Harvard where she majored in Visual and Environmental Studies. Deeply influenced by the fairy tale visions of German animator Lotte Reisinger, Hill's first mature films make inventive use of stop-motion and silhouette figures to evoke magical, dreamy and music-filled worlds where the Darwinian order is suspended and the smallest creatures and moments command the greatest presence. In celebrated early works such as Mouseholes and Vessel, Hill created miniature yet deeply personal and complexly textured worlds resonant with her singular voice and vision. Upon completing her studies at California College of the Arts, Hill lived a somewhat itinerant life with her husband Paul Gailiunas, a medical doctor, moving first to Nova Scotia and then New Orleans – at each place working equally as an social activist and filmmaker, also teaching classes and workshops in small gauge and hand-processed cinema that culminated in her now classic filmmaking manual Recipes for Disaster. After being driven from New Orleans by the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Hill and Gailiunas bravely returned to their adopted home months later with their son Francis, fired by their commitment to the city and to social justice, with Gailiunas reopening his free medical clinic and Hill tirelessly filmmaking and inventing new projects. Tragically, it was in New Orleans that Hill would abruptly lose her life – shot to death by an intruder into her home – victim to a still unsolved crime, in a wave of random, senseless violence that shocked the nation to its core. A final film remained unfinished – a portrait of a New Orleans African-American seamstress named Florestine Kinchen whose handmade dresses inspired Hill when she found one hundred fabulously patterned and colored dresses mysteriously abandoned on the street. Following the thread of the Florestine mystery and Hill's own notes, Paul Gailiunas painstakingly worked to complete his wife's last work, resulting in a quietly triumphant and accomplished study of an outsider artist whose dresses emblematize the unique color and texture of New Orleans.

The Harvard Film Archive is honored to be the home for Helen Hill's films – and eventually, her papers – and to offer this showcase of her remarkable talent, which includes a selection of Hill's evocative New Orleans home movie footage damaged by Katrina and recently preserved by a dedicated group of archivists led by the Center for Home Movies in association with the HFA. – Haden Guest

For their dedication to the preservation of Helen Hill's life and legacy, the Harvard Film Archive gives special thanks to Paul Gailiunas, Becky and Kevin Lewis, Dan Streible, Russ Suniewick, Bill Brand, Laura Kissel, Susan Courtney, Dwight Swanson, Katie Trainor and Kara van Malssen. 

Introduction by Becky Lewis, mother of Helen Hill
Friday October 28 at 7pm

All Films Directed by Helen Hill


US 1999, 16mm, color, 8 min


US 1992, 16mm, color, 6 min

Upperground Show

US 1990-91, digital video, color, 7 min

Scratch and Crow

US 1995, 16mm, color, 5 min

Film for Rosie

US 2000, 16mm, color, 3 min

Rain Dance

US 1990, 16mm, color, 4 min

Your New Pig is Down the Road

US 1999, b/w & color, 5 min

The Florestine Collection

US 2011, 16mm, color, 31 min

Selections from Helen Hill's Home Movies

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Harvard Film Archive • Carpenter Center • 24 Quincy Street • Cambridge MA 02138 • 617-495-4700