The largely erudite throng of friends and well-wishers gathered at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies pressed forward to congratulate Cynthia Hill on the forthcoming PBS broadcast of her and co-director Charlie Thompson’s film, The Guestworker, which illuminates the travails facing immigrant Hispanic farm laborers in our state.
Everyone had just left a “celebration screening” and panel discussion of the documentary on Duke’s campus, and now they reveled in her achievement over salsa and cans of Tecate.
Through the crowd, a portly, middle-aged gentleman emerged carrying a paper plate piled with blue-corn nachos, wearing long-sleeve flannel and bearing the distinct, resolute visage of rural North Carolina.
“Hey, Dad,” chirped the young filmmaker over the din of the house band’s Latin American rhythms. “What did you think of the film?” Casting a wary eye around, perhaps looking for the more strident interlocutors from the post-film discussion, the elder Hill groused, “I don’t agree with some of the liberal stuff. We’ll talk about that later.”
His daughter responded not with a glare of consternation or embarrassment but with a gaze of admiration for the man who helped raise her and now, in this time and place, evoked memories of a bucolic, less complicated world where one’s perspective on life flows more from a devotion to family, work and God than think-tanks, symposiums or group studies.
“Love ya’, Dad,” she beamed before the old man departed, bound for the refuge of his Lenoir County homestead.
The paradoxes surrounding Cynthia Hill are as striking as her ingenuity. Hill has now helped direct and/or produce three feature-length documentaries, traveled to film festivals throughout the country promoting her work, and operates her own media production company. She started an organization to give herself and other area filmmakers increased fiscal flexibility. And, she purchased and restored a venerable building in downtown Durham to house her professional ventures. Yet, she still works several days a month as a pharmacist at Wal-Mart, “just in case things don’t work out.”
Lately, things have been working out quite well. After competing at the Full Frame Documentary Festival in 2005, The Guestworker will debut this week on North Carolina Public Television. Meanwhile, Hill’s first cinematic foray, Tobacco Money Feeds My Family, a meditation on the decline of the tobacco industry and its impact on small farmers and small towns, was nominated last week for a Mid-South Regional Emmy and will begin a nationwide PBS run in January.
A 36-year-old Eastern North Carolina gal who grew up suckering tobacco and finding religion at the Pentecostal Holiness church in Pink Hill, Hill surprised her family when she decided on a career in the motion picture industry.
When asked about her formal training in filmmaking, she slyly responds, “Well, I watched a lot of television growing up.” Actually, while studying for her graduate degree in Pharmacy Administration at Auburn University, Hill had access to A/V production equipment, which she would check out to study and use for side projects. After beginning her production career working on health education media and living a short time in Los Angeles, she worked four years as an editor for GLC Productions, a New York City-based post-production facility. However, a yearning for home and her own career led Hill back to North Carolina and Durham’s burgeoning filmmaking community.
“Once I decided to move back to North Carolina, the only real choice was Durham,” she says. “The vibe here is more diverse and creative than any city in the state.”
Taking the road back home sent Hill down the path to her current success. Benefiting from the recent focus on the issue of immigration, The Guestworker documents the stories of three men who travel from Mexico to North Carolina for work under the federal government’s H-2A, or guestworker, program. The project was a collaboration between Hill’s filmmaking skills and Thompson’s background in farming, familiarity with the H-2A program, and fluency in Spanish. Thompson, who is also an author, will be at the Regulator Bookshop Wednesday, Dec. 6 to discuss his book The Old German Baptist Brethren: Faith, Farming, and Change in the Virginia Blue Ridge.
“Around the time we started making the film in 2002, approximately 10,000 people entering the U.S. under the H-2A program traveled to North Carolina,” says Thompson, who is also the education and curriculum director at the Center for Documentary Studies. “That was 25 percent of the total number nationally. So, Cynthia and I both felt an obligation to share the story of this sea change with the rest of the nation.”
“When I was growing up and Mexicans started moving into town, people in church started telling everyone to lock your doors,” Hill says. “Even today, we usually don’t give a second thought as we ride by the fields and see Hispanics picking cucumbers or tobacco. I saw this film as a way to build a better understanding of all people, including the farmers, in order to see everyone involved as a human being.”
While polishing up a commissioned work documenting the life of a North Carolina politician”strictly as a keepsake for his family,” she addsHill has begun work on her next project. With the working title Get Right With God, the documentary will be about the role of religion in the South and growing up in the Bible Belt. Filming will again take place in Eastern North Carolina, and Hill has enlisted the assistance of author, poet, musician, and Mount Olive native shirlette ammons.
Like most of Hill’s work, the idea for the film sprung from her own experiences. “Growing up in a Pentecostal Holiness church, I remember when all I wanted was to be filled with the Holy Spirit. One time, the church prayed over me for nearly an hour until I began speaking in tongues, more from sheer exhaustion than anything else.”
“I suppose you could say I direct films because it helps me save money on therapy.”
Unlike many documentary filmmakers who look for interesting people or specific events for inspiration, Hill settles on a provocative topic and then builds her film around it. “Filmmaking in general is not a straight line. You discover a story’s context along the way,” she says. Yet, while she is drawn to provocative issues, Hill does not consider herself an ideologue. Indeed, she remained conspicuously quiet during the Guestworker post-screening panel discussion at Duke “because I knew it was going to be about the issues and not the film.”
Beyond Hill’s acumen as an auteur and beneath her amiable, self-effacing patina lies a single-minded, shrewd entrepreneur who has done as much to advance the business of Durham filmmaking as the art. In 2002, she and Emmy Award-winning historian, author and filmmaker Dr. Steven Channing founded the Southern Documentary Fund (SDF), a nonprofit organization that offers fiscal sponsorship for Southern-related media projects. A documentary project can only secure funding from foundation, government or corporate sources if it obtains nonprofit status under a 501(c)(3) certificate from the IRS. Having third-party fiscal sponsorship, such as from SDF, eliminates this expensive and time-consuming process and enables a filmmaker to solicit much-needed funding. SDF collects all funds for a project, disburses them as necessary, and helps provide screening opportunities, Web site space and fiscal consultation.
“Cynthia and I saw that there was a community of existing and would-be documentary artists just wanting to tell their stories,” says Channing. “But there wasn’t an organization available to nurture them. So, even just at the passive level of being the IRS-approved organization to handle your money and be able to receive money is a godsend for a filmmaker.”
On the eve of their fifth-year anniversary, SDF is currently sponsoring nearly 40 projects. Hill hopes to expand SDF’s function toward becoming a conduit for grants from foundations, such as Doris Duke Charitable and Z. Smith Reynolds, which often donate to film projects but are not geared toward directing those funds in a coordinated manner.
To find a home for herself and her enterprises, Hill formed a limited liability company in 2004 to purchase the old Penny Furniture Co. building on East Chapel Hill Street in downtown Durham. She set about renovating the gutted brick shell, assisted by architect/developer Scott Harmon and with funding obtained from various sources, including the City of Durham and the Self-Help Ventures Fund, a Durham-based nonprofit that provides “higher-risk” commercial financing to support entrepreneurial ventures by small businesses and nonprofit companies.
Today, IKEA closets stand near kitchen sinks salvaged from UNC Laboratories inside the second floor flat Hill converted into her home. Down a hallway, past the couch her Bernese Mountain Dog/Malamute mix Mr. Tibbs uses as a bed, is space that Hill’s filmmaking company, Markay Media, shares with the SDF and Channing’s own media education company, Video Dialog.
“Cynthia grew up in a working-class family, but she possesses a creative and entrepreneurial spirit that leads to her to pursuits most people with her background would not dream of,” muses Thompson. “‘Independent’ is the right word to describe her. She marches to the beat of her own drummer; I just haven’t yet figured out what the cadence is.
“She has a magnetism and an ability to influence people that helps her move forward, but I think it is her creativity that drives her more than anything. Cynthia’s goal is to help make Durham an epicenter for documentary filmmaking, and I think she’s well on her way.”
The Guestworker will debut on North Carolina Public Television on Thursday, Nov. 30 at 8 p.m. For more information on the film and the Southern Documentary Fund, go to www.docsouth.com.