There are three moments indelibly etched in my mind when it comes to Helen Hill. The first came when, as a judge for the New Orleans Video Access Center's Louisiana Video Shorts awards competition in 2002, I sat with a handful of other judges around the room watching in amazement at her submission.
Mouseholes, as cockeyed and cute as its title, was an animation short that featured a range of filmmaking techniques. Hill used puppets made from clay, cloth and cutout paper as well as pixilation and even her own hand drawings to pay homage to her dying grandfather. We marveled at the childlike narration delivered in Helen's voice, which sounded more like the accent of her Nova Scotia-born husband, Paul Gailiunas, than of those commonly heard in her native South Carolina. We knew pretty early who was the winner. And I knew I had an obvious future feature subject.
The second moment came when Hill invited me to the Carrollton neighborhood shotgun rental that Hill, then 31, shared with Gailiunas, a cat and their pig, Rosie. But, oddly enough, it wasn't Rosie that seemed so curious to me; rather, it was Hill herself. Stepping into their home, I felt like I'd entered one of her animation shorts. The furniture seemed all pre-owned, nothing new, but homey, as if cobbled together for a children's playhouse. After shaking hands with Paul, I saw Hill -- her shoulder-length blond hair braided in pigtails, eyes wide with anticipation -- bounce out from the kitchen in a thrift-store dress to the living room, cheerily offering a snack tray. No interview subject had ever been so hospitable.
She spoke in a perpetual tone of wonderment. In rereading a feature I wrote from that time for Gambit Weekly ("A World of One's Own," Oct. 9, 2001), I remembered the quote I'd used about how she finagled a special editing machine from Centenary College in Shreveport. "So I went and taught some people how to use it," I quoted her as saying, "and they let me use it for free." Missing was an exclamation point, because that's often how she spoke, as if everything she said was a mini-discovery, that anything good in this world was something to be emphasized.
Paul was the same way. A family physician who seemed interested in working only with the poor, he discussed his plans to work at a nearby clinic to help provide health care to those who couldn't afford it. They enjoyed talking about filmmaking well enough, but they seemed more interested in New Orleans, about the community, about helping others. It didn't matter whether it was through his job as a doctor, or Helen's starting up a ground-level filmmaking workshop, or their volunteering with Foods Not Bombs.
Hill had an undeniable talent as a filmmaker, even if she preferred to make her films as cheaply as possible; works such as Mouseholes and the subsequent work, Madame Winger Makes a Film (narrated by an aunt) reflected her innate curiosity about and respect for her subject matter. If she'd possessed a more naked ambition, Helen Hill might have been in Los Angeles or New York by now, working the indie-film circuits of HBO, IFC or Sundance.
Living now in Atlanta, with all of its attendant distances from New Orleans -- my home for eight years, before and after Hurricane Katrina -- it's hard for me and my fiance not to watch in horror at the toll the storm continues to take on the city. It was one thing to read the news of the suicide of the sometimes-brilliant actor Mark Krasnoff, who left audiences breathless with his portrayal of Salieri in the puppet-theater production of Amadeus back in 2002, and then to hear about the murder of Hot 8 Brass Band drummer Dinerral Shavers.
And it just worsens to hear about the senseless murder of Hill, who along with her husband represented the type of outsider who falls in love with New Orleans more after their arrival. You couldn't help but notice them somewhere in the city -- hiking along with a second line, dressing up for Krewe du Vieux -- wherever there were people having a good time. They were there. And they were often peddling something, a pamphlet for a nonprofit event, a new CD that Paul had made. "You should come!" one of them would gush, with a sweetness that might throw off the more cynical.
The third moment that stuck in my mind was the last time. It was Aug. 29, 2006, and we were all at Armstrong Park for the anniversary rally/commemoration of Katrina. It was typically hot and muggy, and I had listened to enough speakers at the rally. For some reason, I'd kind of lost the mood, and wanted to seek cooler shelter.
As I was getting ready to leave, I saw Helen and Paul make their way across the plaza. If memory serves, they were carrying along their 2-year-old son, Francis. It wasn't until last week that I learned they'd just returned to New Orleans the day before, hoping to join in the city's recovery.
Through the heat and humidity and crowds, they still possessed that look of wonderment. There were poor, sick people to tend to, and a community to rebuild, after all, and there were still more people for Helen and Paul to touch in their own special, selfless way.
I'll catch them next time, I thought.
It was a missed opportunity, so all most of us have now are the images left behind of her films, and those little, snapshot moments to treasure.
David Lee Simmons, a former Arts and Entertainment Editor and Managing Editor for Gambit Weekly, is the Arts and Entertainment Editor for Creative Loafing in Atlanta.