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Helen Hill: An Unfinished Story
They got up before dawn, put on costumes he can no longer remember and set out on foot for the parades, several miles from their apartment in the leafy Carrollton neighborhood. Helen Hill and Paul Gailiunas, both Harvard graduates, had just moved to New Orleans after six long winters in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he had completed his medical degree and residency. “Some people romanticize the green, overgrown shabbiness” of New Orleans, Gailiunas said later. “Helen loved the city so much, she couldn’t allow herself to see beyond that.”
Hill had light brown hair, a full-jawed smile and a radiant optimism. Gailiunas, slender and quiet with a mop of black hair, was a young doctor and her soul mate. He made cameo appearances in several of her experimental animated film shorts, played guitar in a local rock band and wrote music tracks for her visual stories.
Their life was like a movie; a gutsy, quirky, romantic adventure, light years from the expectations of most of their college friends. Gailiunas and Hill were radical humanitarians with a contagious joie de vivre. New Orleans seemed like the perfect place for them.
On that winter day in 2001, sunlight washed across the early sky as they passed through a an black residential street. Hill stopped to inspect a stack of handsewn dresses someone had put out on the sidewalk. Gailiunas watched her sift through the garments, touching the fabric, marveling at the designs. She held up one dress, then another and another – just her size. “This is the best trash-pile find in the world!” she exclaimed.
Gailiunas knew his wife’s habit of scoping out flea markets and curio shops for eclectic items, like the cigar boxes she decorated as gifts for their many far-flung friends. But parade day beckoned. They walked all the way down to a Central City corner and caught the vintage satire of the Zulu parade – black men, girded in grass skirts, their faces white with grease-paint, riding on elaborately decorated floats and tossing gilded coconuts. Hill was thrilled with hers.
That night, she persuaded Gailiunas to drive her back to the house with the discarded dresses on Adams Street, the same name as the Harvard residential house in which they had once lived. Hill heaped dresses in the car, eventually toting off about 100 in all, her mind spinning with questions and possibilities. How had these beautiful garments ended up on the ground? Before long, Hill came to know the pastor of the neighborhood Baptist church, and he told her about Florestine Kinchen, the 90-year-old seamstress whose family had emptied her house just after her death. For Hill, Kinchen’s life was perfect material for a film, a search for the identity of the woman with whom she felt a spiritual kinship. In 2004, Hill received a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, worth $35,000, for the work-in-progress. She kidded Gailiunas: “I’m an alternative filmmaker supporting a doctor!”
By then, Gailiunas had helped establish a medical clinic, Little Doctors, that catered to artists and poor folk in a city where 40 percent of the residents live in poverty. In off-hours, he sang anarchist lyrics with his band, the Trouble Makers. Gailiunas and Hill bought a house on Cleveland Street in racially mixed Mid-City and painted it yellow with red trim; they held block parties and welcomed kids curious about one of their pets, Rosie, a potbellied pig. As Hill worked on films and taught filmmaking, they became part of a circle of artists, activists and “anti-establishment people who enjoyed life, including friends who weren’t necessarily educated,” as Gailiunas later told me. “Our lives were quite far from Harvard.”
On Oct. 15, 2004, Hill gave birth to their son, Francis Pop Gailiunas.
“They were insanely, genuinely, happy people; outgoing and caring,” says René Broussard, who runs Zeitgeist, the city’s alternative media center, where Hill showed her films. “I thought, no one is that happy.”
On Aug. 28, 2005, the news of a category 5 hurricane barreling across the Gulf of Mexico sent them packing. They took Rosie the pig, but left two cats inside with a supply of dry food and litter. Like nearly everyone in New Orleans who had a car and evacuated, they assumed they’d return in a week or so. Gailiunas, Hill, Francis and Rosie drove for a day-and-a-half to Hill’s hometown of Columbia, S.C. From the safety of her parents’ house, they followed TV news as Hurricane Katrina assaulted the city. They watched in agony as the levees broke, putting 80 percent of the city underwater, as looters marauded and thousands were trapped in downtown public spaces. Their own house took 4 feet of water. Gailiunas’s clinic was one of several thousand small businesses forced to close.
The following week, Gailiunas drove back to save their cats. He got through National Guard stops with friends who had press passes. The water had receded as he entered the house. Fetid mud caked the floor. The walls, coated with gray slick, had a terrible stench. The cats were hungry but alive.
Gailiunas rescued the screening prints for Hill’s films from an upper shelf, and imagined her relief on finding Florestine Kinchen’s dresses above the water line. This is it, he figured. New Orleans is over for us.
Back in Columbia, he secured an eight-month contract as a physician. Hill’s folks were thrilled. Her mother, Becky Wingard Hill, and stepfather, Kevin Lewis, had recently moved into the larger home of Becky’s late mother. Gailiunas, Hill and the baby, nicknamed Poppy, moved into the house where Hill had grown up, a house with good memories – and a yard for Rosie.
All of which suited Gailiunas fine. From his time at the clinic, he knew how dangerous the city was even before Katrina. Now the city had skeletal public services and debris-lined streets throwing off toxic hazards. But Hill insisted on going back. “We can do this,” she vowed. She started a secret campaign to change Gailiunas’s mind, sending pre-addressed postcards to friends, entreating them to write Gailiunas, endorsing a return. Over the summer of 2006, she wore down his defenses. “She was truly fearless,” Gailiunas told me. “But she hadn’t had the same experience I’d had, treating drug addicts at the St. Claude hospital. I had seen another side of New Orleans.”
One year after their evacuation, they returned. Half of the city’s population was gone.
Six weeks later, Poppy turned two. As Gailiunas and Hill dealt with insurance issues on their wrecked home, they rented one side of a faded shotgun double on North Rampart Street in Marigny. Gailiunas rode his bicycle to a job at Daughters of Charity Health Care clinic on Rampart, closer to the 9th Ward. Life resumed anew.
Hill and Gailiunas met in September 1988, in their first week at Harvard. For all of her extracurricular activities and A’s at Dreher High School, a public school in Columbia where blacks were a majority of students, Hill had a bohemian streak.
Becky, her mother, had instilled in Hill a love of reading, a tradition of hand-making holiday cards and a love of film. Becky had deep roots in Columbia, but her marriage to a hometown guy had fallen apart by the time Hill and her older brother, Jacob Hill III, were starting school. As the children’s father drifted out of their daily lives, their grandfather, Albert Wingard, assumed a central role. Pop, as Helen and Jake called him, doted on them. Home movies show Pop giving them rides on his two-seater bicycle.
When Hill was just a girl, her mother met Kevin Lewis, a 1965 Harvard graduate and religious studies professor at the University of South Carolina. “Kevin really was a knight who came into my life,” says Becky, who was teaching school at the time. When Becky and Kevin married in 1976, Helen was six and Jake was eight.
Becky entered graduate school at the university, earning a doctorate in English and eventually landing a position on the faculty. Kevin helped raise the children as if they were his own. He encouraged them to try for Harvard. Jake graduated from Harvard in 1989.
“Leaning strongly towards literature,” Hill wrote in her Harvard application, “ I would like to learn more about the techniques and opportunities in the film medium, especially animation … through which to help society recognize its faults and see solutions.”
Gailiunas was a Jewish boy from Edmonton, Canada, a physician’s son who grew up in a household filled with music; two of his brothers became professional musicians. Gailiunas played guitar in a high-school rock band and dreamed of serving as a doctor in Africa. At Harvard, he studied African history with enough science courses for medical school.
In college, their relationship was platonic. Hill dated classmate, Elijah Aron, from California, who wanted to be a writer. Gailiunas and Elijah became friends, too. “Elijah wore a cape and Doc Marten boots, and he was really into spontaneity,” says Keiko Morris, Hill’s roommate, who became a Newsday reporter. “He and Helen often headed out on night adventures, running around downtown Boston, twirling off the light poles.”
“Helen, Elijah and Gailiunas were the Three Musketeers,” recalls Helen’s brother Jake.
Hill loved the fiction of Flannery O’Connor. In film classes, she made small puppets and figurines, and used felt pens to draw images directly on the celluloid – a natural extension of her childhood traditions, hand-making cards and little gifts. Morris remembered the night sophomore year when Hill practically danced in jubilation: “I know exactly what I want to be, Keiko. I’m going to be an animator – an animator!”
Hill approached the celluloid like a canvas, drawing or painting on the thin strips, experimenting with color combinations for the settings, frame by frame. The figures she made out of cardboard, clay and plastic functioned as tiny sculptures which she delighted in choreographing around, imbuing them with voices and on-screen life.
In time, however, the realization crept up on Hill and Aron that their romance was fading. Aron viewed life through a comic lens, with all the pain on which artistic comedy thrives. (Today he writes scripts for TV comedies.) Gailiunas and Hill saw each other as genuine idealists, people who believed they could make a better world and take pleasure in doing so.
Hill and Aron remained friends after breaking up; so did Aron and Gailiunas. Hill and Gailiunas moved to New Orleans. “Helen insisted that everything in her life become an event,” Gailiunas says, “something made festive, to be remembered.” Heading to New Orleans in 1992 was one such event.
Having visited an aunt who lived in the French Quarter, Hill was fascinated by the Old World ambience, tropical pace, stately avenues draped with ancient oaks and the richly rooted culture of black music. After graduation, she wanted a year off before the next step in her studies. New Orleans was a city where they felt their passions could find a home.
They found an apartment together, living as close but platonic friends; took jobs and explored the neighborhoods, enjoying the parades and festivals. That fall they became lovers. After a dreamy spring of 1993, they headed off to opposite ends of the continent, she to Los Angeles for graduate work in film, he to Nova Scotia for medical school.
Gailiunas and Hill resolved to write every day, numbering each one, and called each other often. They married on June 18, 1995, at the chapel of the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Hill and Gailiunas wrote their vows. Wearing a daisy in his hair, Gailiunas surprised her at the appointed time. As his brother played guitar; the groom sang his vows:
Sweet Helen Hill,
Will you be mine?
Until the end of time…
I will be strong,
I will be sweet
I’ll hold your hand
When things ain’t great…
I will, I will, I will
Hill could not stop crying.
After the wedding, they rode the old two-seater bicycle on which her late grandfather, Pop, had given her countless rides, pedaling to their reception. They held a second celebration a week later in New Orleans. And then, with her freshly minted Master of Fine Arts degree from the California Institute for the Arts, Hill moved up to chilly Halifax, Nova Scotia, as Gailiunas returned to Dalhousie University Medical School.
In medical school Gailiunas became a vegan, eating no animal products of any kind. Vegans often share an ideology linked to pacifism, a belief that killing animals corrupts a pristine order of nature – as humans prey on animals, so the predatory hungers of humankind feed on violence and lead to war. He felt animals should not suffer and die for people’s food. Hill became a vegan too.
As Gailiunas finished medical studies, Hill taught animation at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and won a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation commission for several shorts on Street Cents, a popular children’s TV series. In 1999, with Canadian Council for the Arts funding, she traveled across the country, meeting with colleagues in the alternative film network and collecting information on handmade filmmaking techniques. The spiral-bound booklet she produced, Recipes for Disaster: A Handcrafted Film Cookbooklet, parodied a cookbook, including how-to tips on filmmaking and a simulation of her approach with handwritten notes, e-mail messages, different fonts and her own cartoons. Her travels took her to Phil Hoffman’s film farm, a filmmaking retreat in Mt. Forest, Ontario, where she learned how to use chemicals to hand-process film. She was a purist – no video or digital, only celluloid would do.
Several miles from Hoffman’s barn, Hill found an animal farm with monkeys, zebras, lizards and a gaggle of baby pigs. Hill was so taken by the piglets that she bought one as a surprise for Gailiunas. The film she made in Hoffman’s barn, Your Pig Is Down the Road, is a love song to Gailiunas and a celebration of pigs, with intimations of the vegan good life.
She would later make a companion piece, Madame Winger Makes A Film. With Gailiunas’s guitar lines as a music track, the film is narrated by “Madame Winger,” actually a friend of her mother’s, Meredith Pogue. The raspy Southern accent, seasoned by cigarettes, wraps around the syllables in a wonderfully comic way.
“Filmmakers! How will you survive the new century?” Madame is represented by a hand-drawn woman with a doe-eyed face, snowy hair in a layered beehive, a matching boa around her neck, a red dress and black-and-white stockings. The storyline roams from instructions on chemical processing to home movies of Hill as a kid then on to Gailiunas, grinning, hugging and kissing a 50-pound pig: The artist presenting scenes from her life.
When Gailiunas received his M.D. they headed back to the city of their dreams.
On Jan. 4, 2007, at 10 minutes after 5 in the morning, a 60-year-old woman in a bed-and-breakfast on Rampart Street, four houses down from Gailiunas and Hill, awoke to a strange knock. She opened the door but saw only a darkened hallway. She closed the door. The knock came again. Again, she opened. This time she saw a black man – that was the only description the police would release – ”just standing there, holding a gun,” she would tell Brendan McCarthy of The Times-Picayune. “He mumbled something and then butted against the door, trying to enter.”
The woman’s husband forced his body against the door, shutting the intruder out. As the man fled, the couple called NOPD. Cops arrived within minutes.
Four houses away, Gailiunas was sleeping in the back bedroom next to his toddler when he heard Hill scream from the living room: “Get away from my baby!”
He bolted out of bed and pulled the boy into his arms.
Her voice again: “Call 9-1-1!”
He heard a gunshot. Carrying his son, Gailiunas ran to the doorway and saw a man with a gun standing over Hill, who lay on the living room floor, bleeding.
Holding the boy, Gailiunas broke for the back of the house. The man followed him into the bathroom. Gailiunas sank to his knees in a corner, head down, shielding his child. The man fired. Gailiunas felt a bullet sear his cheek. Another one burned into his left forearm. Something – another bullet? a ricochet? – slashed his right hand.
Leave, prayed Gailiunas. Leave now. He felt his blood spreading on the floor. He tried to pretend that he was dead. Don’t reload. His body covered the boy, who had gone silent. At least one of us is shot, he thought.
He heard the back door slam.
Gailiunas pushed himself off the floor. In a daze, he led Poppy into the bedroom, fumbled on the nightstand, put on glasses and punched 9-1-1 on his cell phone.
Police officers were questioning the man and woman in the guesthouse when Gailiunas’ scream burst out of the squad car’s radio. Hill had a bullet through the neck.
He unlocked the front door as the police arrived. One of the officers ushered Gailiunas and his son onto the front steps. The house had become a crime scene.
As Gailiunas sat with his son on the steps, he realized that Hill must have woken up to let Rosie into the backyard. Police would theorize that the intruder fleeing the bed-and-breakfast hopped over the back fence just as Hill opened the kitchen door. As the man barged into the house, Hill struggled with him, her screams waking Gailiunas.
She saved our lives, he told himself.
An ambulance arrived. They got in.
Helen Hill was buried in the cemetery beside her grandfather, Pop. “Hers was hardly a typical funeral procession,” reported the Columbia State, her hometown paper, remarking on the “parade of her brightly garbed friends (ancient plaid suits, motorcycle boots, striped stockings) …”
Friends from Hill’s Cal Arts years flew to Columbia for the funeral. So did friends from Cambridge, Halifax, New Orleans, New York and even Korea. Gailiunas, Poppy and Aron wore seersucker suits in honor of Hill. Always a Southern girl, she had loved seeing men in seersucker.
Back in New Orleans, public anger exploded over a surging homicide rate. On the day of Hill’s death, the city would reel from six murders in 24 hours. “Killings bring the city to its bloodied knees,” cried a Times-Picayune headline. Days earlier, violence also claimed Dinerral Shavers, a 25-year-old snare drummer for the Hot 8 Brass Band, a popular local act. An anti-violence protest on Jan. 11 drew 3,000 people to City Hall, calling for the resignations of Mayor Ray Nagin, District Attorney Eddie Jordan and Police Superintendent Warren Riley.
Jordan would resign a year later. Entwined with the sleazy politics and Nagin’s narcissistic incompetence was endemic poverty that fed a vicious drug culture in a city whose defenses had been torn apart by Katrina. NOPD lost its crime lab in the flood and was severely understaffed as drug thugs fought for shrinking turf.
Two years later, despite a $5,000 reward and national attention from segments in 48 Hours and America’s Most Wanted, there has been no arrest.
Jake Hill, who works in Manhattan, has made a series of trips to New Orleans to meet with NOPD officials about the investigation. Citing the shortage of police and conditions two years ago with the lack of lab support, Hill says the original investigation was inadequate. “The department was overwhelmed,” he says. But with a new detective working the case, Hill says, “some evidence is being used to hopefully uncover additional leads…. I think time is on our side.”
He continues: “If there’s an anger I have it’s against the political establishment at the time Katrina happened. They failed miserably and one of the ramifications was my sister getting killed. And they keep failing. If this happened in Connecticut, would political leaders accept that there’s not a crime lab? I know there are remarkable individuals who came back to [NOPD] and have done everything they could, but without proper resources and leadership, it’s a losing battle. I just want to see my sister’s case get solved.”
Like Gailiunas and the rest of Hill’s family, Jake struggles with his reaction to her murder. “Helen lived up to her principles,” he says. “Paul, Kevin, my mother and I have to put our principles on the line. I’d be the first to argue against the death penalty – Helen didn’t support it. I just hope the son-of-a-bitch is caught and put in prison forever.”
“Helen coined a term for herself – a ‘romance-activist,’” Gailiunas says. “She believed that the key to a lasting, healthy relationship was not to fall in love at first sight – you should develop a friendship first.”
The words came on a July afternoon in 2007, as we sat in a vegetarian restaurant in Vancouver’s west side, a neighborhood ith storefront cafes, clothing shops, restaurants, bars and a multi-ethnic vibe one finds in Marigny or the French Quarter.
There is a disarming sweetness about Paul Gailiunas. He speaks with the gentle manner of a physician curious about a patient. In his own life, he was moving slowly. “I still have nightmares, waking up and thinking about safety, checking doors. I still have some muscle problems,” he said, extending his right hand, which shows a sunken space in the web between thumb and forefinger, tissue damage from the bullet. “But my therapy is coming along pretty well.” (Both father and son were seeing therapists.)
His cell phone rang – a physician returning his call about part-time work. Apologizing, he left the table for a few minutes. Then, he said: “The only reason to go back to New Orleans would be to try and make it better, and I don’t have that in me.” He paused. “I have to take care of my son.”
In Vancouver, they were living with his mother. “My son is doing as well as can be expected. He is such a sweet, good little boy.”
At night he showed Poppy, 3, photographs of Hill. “I tell him his mother is with the angels.” His eyelids flutter. He nods, gazing at the street in thought. “Helen and I lived in a little bit of a dream world,” he says.
Her finest film, Mouseholes, was made in 1999 as a tribute to her grandfather. She had been finishing graduate school when Pop, then 91, was hospitalized with kidney failure. Hill made several trips home, taping bedside conversations with him on a cassette player. The screen shows cutout figures of the white-haired old man in a bed. Deliberately sounding like a girl of 12, Hill narrates: “My grandfather got smaller each day.” Cut to a home-movie scene of the young siblings on the two-seater bike.
Hill’s voice continues: “Where are we going?”
The viewer hears Pop answer. “Just roaming around,” he says.
The funeral scene – foreshadowing her own – has Pop floating down through heavenly clouds to a table set for tea. A sonorous voice – that of the pastor from Pop’s funeral – quotes St. Paul: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him.”
Helen Hill was 36 and just achieving prominence in her field when she was killed in her beloved New Orleans. The Harvard Film Archive has made new master prints of her films and digitized them onto DVDs that circulate at festivals, classes and private screenings.
In Vancouver, Gailiunas admitted that his world view had changed. While he once thought about living in a place to help make it better, now he was centered on making a better life for his son and himself. “I have to fight not to isolate my son and myself from the world,” Gailiunas said. “That’s not what Helen would want.”
Paul Gailiunas and Poppy recently moved to California, and are doing reasonably well, according to Jake Hill. Gailiunas has a woman in his life, too.