“I’d been wanting to tell the story for a long time,” says Cynthia Hill, about her documentary Tobacco Money Feeds My Family. Told through the lives of a triumvirate of North Carolina farmers who simultaneously inform and confound, Tobacco Money is a meditation on Hill’s childhood, and the halcyon days she and her family spent working together, while cultivating the cash crop that kept a roof over their heads and afforded them a measure of respectability in their community.
The film, which played to an audience of 750 in Hill’s native Lenoir County, leaves viewers feeling nostalgic for a childhood and a pastoral life they may never have known. Hill uses the natural pacing of the farming life–planting and praying for rain, recruiting laborers to glean the crop, and preparing the leaf for market–to structure her film. The stars of her narrative are all dedicated to the production of tobacco: We meet middle-aged white Kinston tenant farmer Melvin Croom, whose deteriorating health, dependence on bank loans and high school laborers threaten his success; black sharecropper Willie Marvin Allen, a spiritual man whose 60-year devotion to his seven acres of golden leaf in Creedmoor has become a ritualized daily practice; and near Oxford is Ernie Averett, a college-educated white farmer who, despite his optimism and reliance on advanced techniques, is increasingly aware that the days of the small-scale tobacco farm are numbered.
“My idea was to follow one season, show what tobacco farming was like and to give viewers an opportunity to understand why these farmers farmed,” says Hill. “But after one season, the story had not told itself yet. Then the allotments started rolling in and the ground started shifting under us.”
Wayne Martin, director of the North Carolina Arts Council’s Folklife Program, which was an early project funder, commented on the difficulty Hill faced in trying to capture this world on film. “There are many obvious challenges for someone who is still connected to the rhythms of this kind of community, who then tries to step back and attempt to film its transition,” he says. “Our grants panel thought it compelling that Cynthia had elected to allow the people who lived it to tell their own stories.”
Tobacco Money does an excellent job of demonstrating why tobacco’s production has brought blacks (descendants of enslaved and free Africans), whites (descendants of both indentured and non-indentured Europeans), and now, migrating contract-bound Latinos together in a strange symbiosis. Access to a cheap, replenishable work force is a necessity for the production of any labor-intensive mainstay, especially one that requires a combination of ample rain and intense sunlight.
If there is a villain in Tobacco Money, it is the Department of Agriculture, which has mandated a steady reduction in tobacco production for the past 10 years. Cognitive dissonance may be the reason some farmers place the blame for their troubles on the government, rather than on the compelling evidence of the crop’s identification as a health hazard. To paraphrase one of Hill’s consultants, a woman who labors on Allen’s farm, “Nobody’s holding a gun to anybody’s head. They know it’s bad for them, so why punish us for growing tobacco?”
Dense and richly nuanced, Hill’s aesthetic forces viewers to shake loose some of their myopia, and with it, their contradictions. Tobacco Money, says award-winning filmmaker, Gary Hawkins, asks viewers “to resist reasoning from conclusions.”
One could say the same of Cynthia Hill. Born and raised in Pink Hill, N.C., during the early 1970s–the decade when increasing unemployment led the first of many residents to abandon their farms–Hill attended the local schools. While attaining pharmacy and pharmacy administration degrees, she began producing and writing segments for the U.S. Pharmacopoeia’s visualized drug database. She later joined Horizon Video Productions, where she wrote health education videos for clients like GlaxoWellcome and UNC-Chapel Hill.
Rangy, sharp-witted, alluring, and given to quick, pointed insights–and equally revealing anecdotes about her past–Hill is not afraid to acknowledge that she is actively grappling with the demons in her head. “I needed different types of representation–big farmers, small, college educated, first-time farmers, and those who chose to return to the farm,” she says. “When I started making the film in New York, I encountered open disdain for these people because they were Southern and grew tobacco. ‘Are they idiots?’ my colleagues would ask. ‘Don’t they know tobacco kills people? What’s wrong with them?’” Hill pauses. “I’m not defending tobacco usage. My film is about a particular agrarian past and our future. It’s about survival. Tobacco has kept small farms intact more than any other crop and, for nearly 200 years, it helped stabilize North Carolina’s economy.” And if anyone could succeed in casting the golden leaf and its producers in a humane light, it is she.
“Cynthia has a soft heart and a keen intellect,” says Hawkins. “You’re struck with those attributes right away. Then you discover more–her honesty, her refreshing lack of narcissism and her overwhelming desire to see life through her subjects’ eyes.”
Growing up in North Carolina, no one in the filmmaker’s strict Pentecostal Holiness family made the connection between farming tobacco and smoking. “It simply wasn’t addressed,” Hill says. From the pulpit, her uncle preached that smoking, chewing–all forms of tobacco were bad. Come Monday though, the entire family would head to the fields and work their miracle crop with religious fervor. “At times, it seemed that everything [I wanted to do] was pretty much bad.”
Tobacco was Hill’s family’s life. It was hard work, but it had its rewards–socializing with family and friends chief among them. But being involved in its production also put them in a double bind. “When I was a child,” Hill says, “I prayed every night to God that I would not be possessed by a demon while I slept É That was what I was concerned about growing up.”
“I had wanted to capture my childhood for people to see, but what I discovered when I got there is that that time is gone,” she continues. “I’ve been in mourning for it ever since. Putting those feelings on film happened without my really thinking about it much. I didn’t go to film school. I just had this dream of telling the tobacco story. Even when I was making health education videos, I wanted to make a film that meant a lot to me.
Hill says though they do not fully understand her vision, her family is very proud of her work. “I think my mother, especially, wanted to do something like this, she just didn’t know how.” She notes that a big part of her satisfaction comes from the camaraderie and support of the Triangle’s community of filmmakers including Hawkins, Rebecca Cerese, Jim Haverkamp, and Brett Ingram. “We’re here and we’ve established ourselves. You don’t have to be in L.A. or New York. Still, we would like to be treated more seriously. I lived in New York but came back because my stories were here.”
Hill is currently working on Bienvenidos a Carolina del Norte, a film which examines the lives of three Mexican farm laborers as they travel back and forth from the United States, to their families across the border.