Most of those who read this will be familiar with the name Helen Hill. Helen was a gifted filmmaker and film educator, who was active in many communities across the continent. Helen lived in Halifax from 1995 to 2001, was a two-time recipient of The Linda Joy Awards, and an integral personality in the film, arts and civic outreach communities of Halifax. In January of 2007 Helen passed away, the victim of random violence in the post-Katrina world of New Orleans. She had returned to New Orleans with her family, simply unable not to, so they could help rebuild the city that had been their home since 2001.
Her particular style of creation, eclectic, inventive, adventurous and free spirited, was unhampered by convention, and was marked by a rarely found honesty and immediacy. Her clear and engaging presence can be felt in all her work, as well as an implicit and warm invitation to join in the sheer enjoyment of it, and the life from which it was drawn.
Helen had a way of becoming a subtle but potent guiding force in her community, and wherever she and her family went, roots quickly spread into the surrounding neighbourhood, into the lives of those around her, and into the world of film folk she worked with as colleagues or as her students.
Helen Hill passed away in January in her home in New Orleans, the victim of an apparently random act of violence. She is survived by her husband Paul Gailiunas and her son Francis.
(Note – Helen’s murder remains unsolved and her husband Paul Gailiunas appeared on America’s Most Wanted in September 2007 appealing for assistance in apprehending her killer. Her death has become iconic in the American media and popular culture as civic groups call for increased measures to deal with growing incidence of random violence in New Orleans and other cities. The tragic and bitter irony of Helen, the embodiment of community concern, falling victim to a symptom of American urban collapse, has struck a powerful chord with the public.)
Helen was an experimental animator who began making films in childhood. She was a graduate of Harvard University with a BA in English, and of the California Institute for the Arts with a Masters in Fine Arts, major in Film and Video.
Helen moved to Nova Scotia in 1995, and immediately became active in the filmmaking community. She helped organize the Reel Vision Festival for women filmmakers and as a member of the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative (AFCOOP), she inspired a new generation of animators through her workshops and courses in experimental animation. Helen also taught at the NS College of Art & Design, and other film centres in the Atlantic region. Amongst her many students were animators Heather Harkins and LIsa Morse, both of whom went on to produce award winning films of their own. In 1996 Helen was voted Nova Scotia’s Best Director in Halifax’s weekly The Coast. She produced a handbook for animators, Recipes For Disaster, which has become a standard reference for animators and film instructors teaching alternative and hand processes used internationally.
Noteworthy for their inspired variety, Helen’s films employ an amazing range of styles and material techniques including traditional animations, cutouts, pixelation, and hand-processed film. Her 1999 animation Mouseholes won Helen wider public acclaim, winning awards in North Carolina and Calgary, and after being selected over the 2000 Academy Award winner, toured across Canada and Europe in Chris Robinson’s State of Canadian Animation Tour. Her films have appeared at film festivals around the world since that time.
Her work was also seen in “Fast Fax” animations on CBC’s series Street Cents, and on the Teletoon animation TV network.
She was also a founder of the Halifax Food Not Bombs chapter.
Their home was a open place where they welcomed neighbourhood kids who would drop in to visit their pet potbellied pig, and would hold various kids’ craft workshops and parties. Paul’s medical practice at that time was at the North End Clinic on Gottingen Street.
In 2001 Helen and her family moved to New Orleans, where she became a founding member and animation instructor of the New Orleans Filmmakers Cooperative. At the same period, she was employed by the National Film Board of Canada as a storyboard artist and in 2002 finished Madame Winger Makes A Film: A Survival Guide for the 21st Century – an instructional animation on cameraless animation now in use at filmmaking centres across the country. In 2004 Helen received a Rockefeller Media Arts Fellowship to finish her film The Florestine Collection. That same year she returned to Halifax to complete her film Bohemian Town for the 30th anniversary of the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative, commissioned in reflection of her importance as a filmmaker to this area and to AFCOOP.
Helen was a great believer in providing people from all walks of life with the tools to tell their own stories through filmmaking. During studies for her MFA, Helen began teaching animation classes for inner-city kids in Los Angeles. Helen never ceased in this activity, but grew ever more generous with her knowledge and time, teaching animation to people all over North America, both formally and as what can be understood best as a good neighbour. Helen and her family were always very involved with and concerned for the health of the communities in which they lived. In New Orleans their open-door policy for neighbourhood kids continued, and Paul was again practicing from a small clinic for under-served and low-income communities. It was this spirit of engagement and generosity which led them to return to their last residence in New Orleans following the devastation of hurricane Katrina.
It is no exaggeration to say that her loss was felt across the continent, and the outpouring of grief illustrated the deeply inspiring and lasting impact Helen had in all the communities of which she was a part during her life. The celebration of remarkable individuals through memorials which continue, in some measure, to pass down the spirit and knowledge which they brought to us, and to continue to do so into the future, seems entirely appropriate. For this reason, the Board, sponsors and staff of the Linda Joy Media Arts Society have established an ongoing Award in Helen’s name, to be presented each year to an artist in animation.
More information about Helen Hill;