Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art
Fri. Oct. 12, 8 p.m.
Room 309, Simons Center for the Arts
54 St. Philip St.
In her films, Cynthia Hill prefers to let her subjects do the talking. We follow them through the day, seeing the world through their eyes.
With her 2006 film The Guestworker, Hill gives us a glimpse into the hard, low-paid lives of laborers on Wester Farms in North Carolina. It took Hill three years to complete the production, and with it, the filmmaker is more or less saying a long goodbye to the world of traditional farming, using time-honored documentary techniques to make her point.
And it's a world that Hill knows well. The filmmaker, who was raised in the rural town of Pink Hill, N.C., says creative urges were nullified, not nurtured, in the agricultural dependent community. "The idea of doing anything artistic wasn't just discouraged. It wasn't even a possibility," says Hill.
Convinced that she needed a good stable job, she enrolled in pharmacy school because of the high salaries of pharmacy graduates. "It's not necessarily the route filmmakers take," she admits. But at the school there was a whole communications department within the pharmacy program with a studio and professional video equipment.
Hill began making health education videos and found that she enjoyed the filmmaking process. "It was nice to have a creative side," she says. "I was 23, and I hadn't thought I could do that."
For her first major documentary, Tobacco Money Feeds My Family, Hill turned her attention to the plight of tobacco farmers. While the smoking ban may be good for our lungs, for tobacco farmers it sucks. In the film, Hill shows how important the much maligned crop is to the farmers — and their families — in Lenoir County, N.C. By exploring their lives and their communities, Hill also examines her own upbringing — her family worked in the tobacco fields when she was young.
These days, farmers have a difficult time finding U.S. residents who are willing to work their fingers to the bone for a few hundred bucks a week. No one wants the work. As a result, these farms are allowed to hire guest workers. Which brings us to Don Candelario Gonzalez Moreno, a 65-year-old participant of the government's H2A worker program and the protagonist of the edifying 50-minute documentary, The Guestworker.
Hill uses glossy video to capture life on Wester Farms, but there's no attempt to beautify the agrarian landscape or overdramatize the intensity of the labor. The closest she gets to editorializing is juxtaposing images of a farmer eating a family meal in his house with those of the guestworkers' shoddier living conditions. But her directorial voice is always distinct — she cares about the workers and highlights their humanity.
"I don't necessarily make my films for any audience," says Hill, who is on a 10-day tour to discuss The Guestworker and introduce screenings of the film. Nevertheless, she appreciates the value of watching one of her projects with a group of people and responding to the way they laugh, groan, or shuffle their butts in the middle of a scene. "There's an immediate feedback you don't get when it's on TV. And it's great to be on the road ... I feel like a rock star. All I need are some groupies."
After the tour, Hill will return to two other projects she's developing. One is a film about domestic violence that she was brought on board to work on; the other is a deeply personal exploration of religion in her home town. Raised in a Pentecostal Holiness household with a preacher for an uncle, she knows a thing or two about the heavy impact religion can have on small communities.
"I find the whole filmmaking process invigorating," she says. "It can also be tiresome, disappointing, frustrating — especially the fundraising process." But for Hill, all of that hard work is justified when she's granted access to environments, like that of the guest laborers on Wester Farms and the tobacco farmers in Lenoir County, which society doesn't usually get to see. "That's a great privilege. Then to share it, to watch it with others ... That's an honor."