United States: Experimental Film Preservation

Preserving the Legacy of Experimental Filmmaker Helen Hill

By Kara Van Malssen, Senior Research Scholar, Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program, New York University


Article Index

Preserving the Legacy of Experimental Filmmaker Helen Hill

Part One

Part Two

References, Bibliography, Video Gallery

All Pages

CHALLENGE: How can individual filmmakers recover their work after a disaster?  To whom can they turn?  And how can a group of film preservationists preserve the legacy of an artist after her tragic death?

STRATEGIES: A Do-It-Yourself recovery effort combined with the determination, generosity and efficiency of a collaboration between film archivists, family and friends to preserve the work of a gifted artist.


If the world did not work in such strange and sometimes tragic ways, this article would be a story of the Do-It-Yourself film recovery project embarked on by filmmaker Helen Hill following the flood of her home in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Helen, her husband Paul Gailiunas, son Francis Pop, pet pig Rosie, and their two cats, had the misfortune of having some four feet of water engulf their house and destroy nearly all of their belongings, including many of Helen’s films.

Instead, it is a two-part story. Part one tells the tale of Helen’s resilience and dedication during the months she spent recovering her films in the basement of her residence in exile (and childhood home) in Columbia, South Carolina. The second part describes how a group devoted individuals worked to continue that effort and preserve Helen’s films after her death on January 4, 2007.

Helen Hill was an animator and filmmaker, teacher, activist, wife, mother, daughter, and friend. She was only 36 years old when she was fatally shot by an intruder in her New Orleans home.


Hurricane Katrina

Residents of the Gulf States of the US are accustomed to hurricane warnings. Six months out of each year the massive storms batter the Caribbean islands and mainlands that surround the Gulf of Mexico. Though hurricane warnings are often issued for large geographic regions, their impact is typically only felt in a small subsection of the high-risk area. Residents of large cities brave mass evacuation, only to have to turn around days later to return to their unscathed homes.

Other than their baby son and pet pig, Helen and Paul only took a few essentials with them when they left the city. They left behind the two cats, thinking they’d be back in a few days, and the cats would be much more comfortable fending for themselves at home than they would be in a car during the long drive to South Carolina.

The family watched the horror of Katrina’s wrath, and then her aftermath, unfold on national television. They quickly learned that their home was in a flooded area, and that they would very likely have extensive damage. Because no one was allowed to enter New Orleans for weeks, they were unable to go back to rescue the cats. After 16 days, Paul snuck into the still inundated city, retrieved the hungry and scared cats, who had been riding out the flood on a window sill, and reunited the family in Columbia.

Helen cleaning her flooded home

Approximately two months after Katrina first hit, Helen and Paul were able to return to New Orleans and see the damage firsthand, and found nearly all of their personal belongings were destroyed. They spent a few days cleaning out their house. Many of Helen’s films could be counted as casualties of the flood, but she was determined to try to salvage these, even though they had been completely submerged under water and had accumulated mold growth over the hot and humid two months. She carefully packaged the Super 8 and 16mm remnants and took them to Columbia. Helen and Paul said that most of the rest of their furnishings and other possessions had to be put out on the curb for the trash collector.



Helen Hill was an experimental filmmaker and animator. She was a lover of celluloid, and had carefully handcrafted playful, heartwarming, and at times melancholy short works since she was a child. After completing a bachelor’s degree at Harvard University (where she met Paul), Helen moved west to attend California Institute of the Arts, where she received an MFA in experimental animation. Helen eschewed the latest digital techniques, preferring to lovingly create puppets, small models, and hand drawing on film, and combine these with home movies and original footage to create magical worlds. Helen’s short films were made on 16mm. For home movies, she was fond of Super 8mm.

After graduate school, Helen moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, where she reunited with Paul as he completed medical studies. While there she completed Mouseholes (1999), her celebrated short about the death of her grandfather, that combines puppets, drawing, home movies, and audio recordings. She also began work on Madame Winger Makes a Film: A Survival Guide for the 21st Century (2001), a spirited animated “instructional” piece that encourages viewers to make their own films She received a grant that enabled her to travel throughout Canada, collecting hand-made filmmaking techniques from artists. The result was a self-published volume entitled Recipes for Disaster: A Handcrafted Film Cookbooklet(2001). She charged buyers only $1 over the cost of printing and shipping. The book became (and remains) a much sought after guide for lovers of experimental filmmaking.

Helen and Paul moved to New Orleans in 2001. They both loved the city, and served its neediest communities. Paul and colleagues opened a low-cost health clinic for the poor. Helen co-founded the New Orleans Film Collective. Together they started a local chapter of Food Not Bombs. Helen completed Madame Winger and made Bohemian Town, an animated and live action tribute to Halifax, among other short film works. She also began her most ambitious project, The Florestine Collection. This animated work would tell the story of a New Orleans seamstress, whose handsewn dresses Helen found discarded on the street in 2001. A 2004 Rockefeller Media Arts Fellowship allowed her to continue work on this film up to her death.

Over the years, Helen regularly shot home movies. Rarely in front of the camera herself, Helen preferred to document lives of her friends and family, both the day-to-day and the important occasions. She also captured celebrations and political events, parades and protests. When son Francis Pop was born in October 2004, he became Helen’s favorite subject. The last Super 8 she shot, with Paul, recorded them at home on January 1, 2007, three days before her death.

Film Damage

When Katrina struck, Helen’s films were stored either on a shelf that was above the water level, or in boxes on the floor. They sustained varying levels of damage, from being completely submerged, to getting wet then drying, to remaining dry but baking in the September heat.

Most of Helen’s 16mm animations were spared from direct damage. However, these were still at risk for long-term damage after sitting in the moldy air for two months. The good news was that copies of prints and negatives of some titles had been stored at labs and the homes of fellow filmmakers. Finding all the elements would be a challenge, but a manageable one.

The home movies suffered the most extensive damage. Nearly all of the 80+ Super 8mm reels, as well as works by her students, were submerged in the flooding. After the waters receded, thriving mold spores began eating away at the fragile film emulsion.

In addition, her original artwork was destroyed, as was her collection of art made by friends. To document the outcome, Helen shot slides of the damaged work. Damaged videotapes that were commercially available were tossed. All of the family’s paper files were beyond recovery, including documents relating to the films. Paul, a musician, also found a number of audio recordings damaged.

Do-It-Yourself Recovery

Immediately after salvaging the remains of their home, Helen unwound and washed the filthiest film reels in a solution of dishwashing detergent and water, then let them dry loose. It wasn’t until a few months later, after the family was comfortably settled into Columbia, that Helen decided to send her films to a lab to have them cleaned. Being an experimental filmmaker who has worked extensively with manipulated and damaged film that she either found or distorted herself, Helen knew that even with damage to the images she would be able to find a use for them in future films. Unfortunately, the lab she sent them to rejected the films for cleaning, saying the excessive dirt and mold might damage their equipment.
Determined not to completely lose her work, Helen decided to clean the films herself. She found information on film cleaning on the Urbanski Film website, and eventually called owner Larry Urbanski to find more information on cleaners and the cleaning process. Urbanski sent her FilmRenew, a product that cleans and kills mold, and helped her with tips on film cleaning. In the basement of her Columbia home, Helen set up rewinds on a dining table that she bought at a garage sale and went to work. Her process involved soaking the films in FilmRenew for different lengths of time, then wiping them with old cotton rags as she wound through them. Although slow-drying, FilmRenew does not need to be rinsed off after use, so the films could simply be wound onto new plastic reels, then put away in cans after they had dried.

Helen cleaning film in her Columbia, SC basement, March 2006

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I was a graduate student in New York University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program. Program Director Howard Besser and I proposed a project on disaster recovery of audiovisual collections following the flood, and received a grant from NYU’s Center for Catastrophe Preparedness and Response to conduct research on collections that were damaged in the city. Helen Hill was one of my case studies for this project, which ultimately became by master’s thesis. On March 19 and 20, 2006, I spent time at Helen and Paul’s home in Columbia, observing and assisting Helen with the cleaning process.

We first looked at some of the films that she had previously cleaned and examined the results. The films had been soaked in FilmRenew between a few hours and a day. They still looked fairly dirty, and could probably have used a second cleaning. We then ventured into the basement and worked with a few reels that Hill had been experimentally soaking for ten days. The excess dirt and mold came off completely; leaving only the few remnants of image that had not been eaten away by water and mold. The first reel we looked at was a Super 8mm home movie, which was a pretty straightforward cleaning job. The second reel, however, was not only an experiment in cleaning, but in cleaning experimental film: it was a compilation of films that her students had used to practice hand-drawn animation (in permanent marker and nail polish), manipulation, and tinting and toning. At times it was very difficult to determine what was intentional, and what was a result of flood damage.

Three stages of film cleaning, from left: moldy film reels, film reels soaking in FilmRenew, results after cleaning


There were a number of observations we made during the cleaning process that are worth sharing:

  • Most films that had been submerged in flood water revealed a deterioration pattern. Often the first third of the film would have no emulsion left, only patterns left by dirt and mold. Then, in the next third of the reel, small bits of image would appear mainly in the center of the frame, as the deterioration generally was worst along the edges. Finally, the last third would be more or less recognizable.
  • Black and white film seemed to fare better than color. It appears that the organic dyes in color film would wash off in layers, which at times would leave only red or yellow images on the print. In some of the less damaged images, the deterioration of layers was often visible: the outer edges of the frame being more faded than the center. It is unclear whether the floodwater, or the FilmRenew caused this. When the reels were soaking in the cleaner, blue and green color would bleed into the liquid. Was the chemical washing off the already fading cyan or is it taking that dye out of the films? Because the composition of black and white stock is not layered, the image would be very clear and dense where emulsion still remained.

Results of cleaning. Notice that in the color film there appear to be layers of color removed, while what remains the black and white image is more dense

  • There were no visible edge codes on any of the films. This information was probably the first to go as the water and mold ate away at the edges of the film. As a result, there was no way to determine what the stock was. This is very unfortunate as it would have been very useful to compare how different film stocks reacted to the water and mold, and then to the cleaning.
  • Some of the permanent marker would come off on the cloth, but not entirely. Tints, tones, and nail polish did not seem to be affected by the FilmRenew. Images that were covered by splicing tape remained intact.

A student film after cleaning. The image in the middle was attached with splicing tape



Clearly more research must be done on film cleaning and the effects of chemicals on various processes. However, the observations that were made in Helen’s case will hopefully benefit others in similar situations. Keeping detailed notes on the recovery process would be very useful in future experiments.

Accidental Preservationist

It was truly serendipitous that I had planned to be in Columbia that week for the 5th Orphan Film Symposium (March 22-25, 2006), held at the University of South Carolina (USC). “Orphans” is a biennial meeting of scholars, archivists, filmmakers, and general enthusiasts of orphan films, which are described by the event’s founder as:

…all manner of films outside of the commercial mainstream: public domain materials, home movies, outtakes, unreleased films, industrial and educational movies, independent documentaries, ethnographic films, newsreels, censored material, underground works, experimental pieces, silent-era productions, stock footage, found footage, medical films, kinescopes, small- and unusual-gauge films, amateur productions, surveillance footage, test reels, government films, advertisements, sponsored films, student works, and sundry other ephemeral pieces of celluloid (or paper or glass or tape or . . . ).

Meeting with Helen fit perfectly into my itinerary for that trip: after spending over a week in New Orleans, I was planning to travel to Columbia for the event. I simply arrived a few days early to work with Helen. Helen was also planning to attend Orphans: a few months before the event, she agreed to screen some of her newly cleaned films.

Helen’s presence at Orphans 2006 was memorable for all who attended. She screened a compilation reel of home movies that she had cleaned at home and then had blown up to 16mm by Alfonso Alvarez, a friend, fellow experimental filmmaker, and California-based expert optical printer. Helen’s fantastic introduction of the film included a sweet story of finding baby frogs living behind swollen books.

Audience members could not help but be moved by the distorted yet beautiful images of Mid-City neighborhood and baby Francis Pop. As documents of pre-Katrina New Orleans, the films were invaluable. And as relics of the flood themselves, they were moving and fascinating.


Projection of Helen’s flood-damaged home movies at Orphans 5


At the symposium, Helen met a group of archivists who were instantly attracted to her warm smile and determined spirit. They quickly became her friends and admirers. I had the pleasure of introducing her to Bill Brand (BB Optics), who was my Film Preservation professor at the time. Along with the rest of our class, Helen, Bill and I sat in a little park on the USC campus and examined some sample Katrina-damaged films, while Paul and baby Francis played in the grass. Bill, Russ Sunewick (Colorlab), and Larry Urbanski (Urbanski Film) all met her there, and gave her advice on cleaning and preserving her films.

Dwight Swanson (Center for Home Movies) met Helen there, and by the end of the week the two were already planning the first New Orleans Home Movie Day for the coming August. Helen later curated a special screening for New Orleans filmmakers the night before the official Home Movie Day, which was held at the Zeitgeist theater almost exactly one year after Katrina struck. Dwight says at this event, which was Helen’s first public appearance in the city after Katrina, “…you could really tell how much energy her presence brought to the city.” Throughout 2006, Dwight and Katie Trainor (also Center for Home Movies) also worked with Helen to write grants for restoration of her damaged films.



After a year in Columbia, Helen, Paul, Francis, and their pets moved back to New Orleans. Helen loved the city deeply, and had a strong desire to return and help the city get back on its feet. When they returned, Helen focused her efforts on rebuilding, and Paul went back to work as a physician, helping those with little or no funds for healthcare.

Early in the morning on January 4, 2007, Helen was fatally shot by an intruder in her home. Paul was also shot and wounded. Francis Pop was unharmed.

The loss of Helen Hill was felt around the world. Family and friends, fellow artists and filmmakers, her students and acquaintances grieved. Although Helen’s funeral and burial were in Columbia, memorial services were held all over the United States and Canada. The city of New Orleans got angry and marched to city hall: this was the second artist killed in just over a week, and the city’s murder rate was rising dramatically. Residents later marched through the streets in both honor and protest at her traditional New Orleans jazz funeral. Scores of friends and family gathered on the Helen Hill memorial website at www.helenhill.org to share memories, photographs, videos of Helen as well as any news on the investigation of Helen’s murder, information on television broadcasts about her, and other related updates.

Preservation Community Response

The film preservation community was also deeply affected by the loss of our new member and was moved to quickly ensure that her films would be preserved and available for viewing. In an effort led by Dan Streible, Helen’s animated works were immediately gathered and sent to Colorlab where new master preservation prints were created. In March 2007, less than ten weeks after her murder, a group of film archivists gathered on the University of South Carolina campus with Helen’s family to screen the new answer prints. I had the great fortune of being in attendance, along with Dan, Bill Brand, Laura Kissel, and Haden Guest of the Harvard Film Archive.

During this period, the Film Preservation class of NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program (MIAP), began work to restore Helen’s 4-minute 16mm color film Rain Dance. The film was made around 1990, when Helen was a student at Harvard. The only remaining elements for the film were the picture workprint and a poorly produced VHS tape. The film’s soundtrack, an original song written and performed by Paul with accordian Matthew Butterick, was never completed to their satisfaction. Additionally, the only version of the original soundtrack that remained was on the VHS tape.

To complete the soundtrack for the restoration, Paul, Matthew, and the NYU class achieved an incredible 21st-century feat, as the class describes in the “Preservation History” for the film:

For this restoration project Gailiunas recorded the guitar and voice anew in Vancouver and sent the track to Matthew Butterick in Massachusetts, who recorded accordion and glockenspiel and returned the track to Gailiunas who then mixed the tracks with Jon Wyna in Vancouver. After mixing, the track was sent to us in New York as an MP3 file.

Along with Colorlab and Trackwise Audio Restoration, the MIAP the class and Bill Brand produced an optically-printed 16mm preservation internegative, a 16mm sound answer print, and then made 16mm release prints from these elements. Colorlab also produced Digital Betacam and DVD access copies.

The preservation prints and negatives for Rain Dance and the other films found their way to the Harvard Film Archive and became part of the Helen Hill Collection, where many drawings, photographs, art works, writings and other ephemera are also housed. A memorial screening of these works was held in June 2007 at the Harvard dorm where Helen lived while attending the university.

Preserving the Home Movies

In June 2007, Dwight Swanson and I returned to Columbia to spend five days assessing and organizing Helen’s home movies, the very same films that had been damaged in Katrina. Dan Streible, who had been working with the Maxine Greene Foundation to secure funding to preserve a few of the films and screen them at the next Orphan Film Symposium, accompanied us. Combined with funding from Harvard and the Women’s Film Preservation Foundation, a total of $7000 was available for preservation work on the home movies. Given the estimate of $11 per foot of film, this amount of money would allow 14 reels of Super 8 film to be cleaned and repaired, have new 16mm prints created as well as Digital Betacam and DVD duplicates.

That week we joined Paul and Francis Pop at the home of Helen’s parents, Becky and Kevin Lewis, and worked together toward preserving the fragile home movies. The challenges we faced that week in Columbia were many, not limited to:

  • Identification: Identifying people, places, and events in small guage films that were severely damaged during Katrina
  • Organization: Determining an appropriate numbering system and creating a spreadsheet to describe the films
  • Selection: Out of a total of approximately 6250 feet of film, choosing only 700 feet to be preserved
  • Emotion: Working in the very same basement studio in Columbia where Helen had worked while cleaning her Katrina-damaged films; watching home movies of happy times with family members who had only lost their loved one only six months prior; seeing many images of Helen smiling, working, and playing.

from left: Kara Van Malssen, Paul Gailiunas, and Dwight Swanson, inspecting Helen’s home movies


The first day of the trip was devoted to locating Helen’s equipment and films, and setting up a small studio in the basement of her parents’ second house. This was the same house where Helen, Paul and Francis lived when they were in exile following Katrina and where Helen cleaned the damaged home movies.

The second and much of the third day were spent watching and re-watching DVD duplicates of the flooded home movie footage. A friend of Paul’s created the DVDs to help him with the process of selecting footage to use in the Florestine Collection, which he has been working to finish since Helen was killed. These DVDs proved to be extremely helpful and saved an enormous amount of time during the identification and selection process. Had the DVDs not been available, we would have had to identify and prioritize films simply based on visual inspection of the reels. Seeing the footage projected on a screen provided a much clearer sense of the quality of images, both in term of their condition and content. Through the screening process, Paul, Dan, Dwight and I were able to make an initial selection of films to be preserved.

Unwound films with no identifiable images

Part of the third day, and all of the fourth and fifth days of the trip were spent in the basement studio. The first step was to wind through all of the reels of flooded film, so that they could be properly inventoried with physical condition and length documentation. This process allowed us to finalize the selection of the fourteen film reels. Also on these days, we identified the content of the films Helen had shot following Katrina (all in excellent condition) with the help of Paul and Helen’s good friend Trixie Sweetvittles, who had arrived that day to visit the family.

The last two days were also spent looking at the films that Helen did not clean (whether she never had the chance to, or she did not want to, is unknown). Additionally, there was a large amount of film that had been left unwound in boxes, which had been cleaned, but no longer had any identifiable images. Helen was interested in keeping this material for its unique color and texture. These films, which included Super 8mm, regular 8mm, and 16mm film, were wound onto reels and included in our final inventory.


At the end of the week, we had a completed inventory of all of Helen’s home movies, had wound them all onto reels, given consistent numbers to both pre and post-Katrina home movies (marked on the film reels by paper tape and also noted in the inventory, along with all previous known numbering systems that might be found in lists and on the reels themselves), identified the content of all the films, and selected fourteen to be sent to Colorlab for cleaning, repair and duplication. The selection included footage of parades and other public events, images of Helen and Paul’s neighbors and the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans. There were also personal memories chosen, such as Helen reading child care books shot the day before Francis Pop was born, and footage of the couple cleaning out their flooded home.

This collection posed numerous preservation challenges. One of the most difficult issues is determining what should be done with the films that have not been selected for preservation? Should they be transferred to DVD for viewing purposes? One perspective on this issue is that these are valuable and very fragile originals, and it would be tragic if a projector damaged them. DVD copies would enable loved ones, fans, and new audiences to enjoy and study Helen’s films without worrying about damaging the film. On the other hand, Helen would want them viewed on film, not video, especially when her family and friends watch them. The artist intentions must be weighed with the risk to the materials.

Ideally, further funds will be obtained to blowup all of Helen’s home movies to 16mm. If funding becomes available, we recommended that any new 16mm preservation masters be sent to the Harvard Film Archive to become part of the larger collection, and the originals should remain with the family. While flood damaged film should take priority once any new preservation funding is obtained, the post-Katrina home movies are also very valuable, and should be duplicated at some point.

At the time of writing, Colorlab is still working on blowing up and printing Helen’s home movies. A selection of them will be seen in the Florestine Collection.

Orphans 6: A Tribute to Helen Hill

From March 26-29, 2008, New York University hosted the 6th Orphan Film Symposium, which was themed “The State.” Opening night was dedicated to the memory of Helen, with a tribute titled “Anywhere…A Tribute to Artist-Activist Helen Hill.” Over 40 of Helen’s friends and family were there, along with 250+ Orphans attendees.

The evening began with an interview with Helen that was shot at the last Orphans in 2006. She introduces herself to the camera, and then gives her definition of an “orphan film.” It was a format the Orphans 5 organizers had used when interviewing a number of that year’s attendees, which had been edited into a compilation reel for the closing night of that event. Watching the 16mm print that Colorlab made, pro bono, from the original mini-DV tape of her interview, I know everyone in the room had to have felt Helen’s presence with us. She was a bright, burning light that was put out far too quickly. We were so fortunate to be able to join together that evening to celebrate the tremendous gifts she had left us in her short time here.

Throughout the night, friends, fellow filmmakers, family, and general Helen enthusiasts shared their stories and introduced a series of beautiful and inspiring works. Many of the newly preserved animated films were shown, including Madame Winger Makes a Film, Rain Dance, Vessel, Mouseholes and Scratch and Crow. The appropriately titled Helen La Belle was shown, a film by the German animator Lotte Reiniger, whose work was a major influence on Helen Hill. The Deutsches Filminstitut gave Helen an on-screen dedication in the restoration print of this film that had recently been made by Haghefilm. Friends and musicians Pistol Pete and Rayna Dae sang “Emma Goldman” (Hill/Gailiunas) and “My Pink Bike” (Hill). The newly established Helen Hill Award was presented to filmmakers Naomi Uman and Jimmy Kinder, for their innovative and independent work.

Dwight Swanson and I introduced three of Helen’s home movies that had been specifically selected for preservation and screening at this event by their appropriateness to the “State” theme.

In Helen’s own words, these depicted the Katrina damaged images of:

“The local band The Troublemakers play in front of a punk rock alternative clothing store called HowlPop. A crowd of folks has gathered to celebrate International Flag Burning Day (a small local holiday). Local filmmaker Thomas Little is dressed as Jackie Onassis.”

“More film from the event in [the previous]. Political activists and punk rockers celebrate. Short scene of a Decadence Day (gay rights) parade.”

“Two professional New Orleans clowns (Sheri Branch and Burgin Sund) dressed as Miss Liberty and Uncle Sam paint faces at a public park on the fourth of July. Paul wears a Happy International Flag Burning Day t-shirt. Uncle Sam paints a flag of Texas on a face.”

Finally, Kevin and Becky Lewis closed the night with a surprise screening of The House of Sweet Magic, a stop-motion animated film Helen made around Christmas of 1981 using toys and a gingerbread house. The Super 8 film was thought to have been lost forever, but was discovered in the Lewis house a month earlier.

Preserving a Legacy

Since Helen’s death, numerous television specials have been broadcast about her life and murder, including on America’s Most Wanted, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) program The Fifth Estate, South Carolina Educational Television, and by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, among others. She has been the subject of radio programs, many on NPR and on the CBC. Countless articles have been written about her life, work, and death.

Screenings of her films have been held around the US and Canada. Awards have been set up in her name, including the Orphan Film Symposium’s Helen Hill Award, Columbia’s Indie Grits Film Fest Helen Hill Memorial Award, and the Halifax-based Linda Joy Media Arts Society Helen Hill Animated Award. Helen was the posthumous recipient of the Flaherty Seminar’s Samu Award for her body of work.

Helen left an indelible impression on everyone who knew her. Her generous and loving spirit was inspiring. Her playful and innovative imagination, and brilliant film works were captivating. She immediately made people feel happy and at ease.

Helen Hill was a truly gifted artist who had so much more to offer the world. Thanks to the work of so many of her friends, colleagues and admirers, Helen’s film legacy will live long into the future. Her work will continue to influence those of us that knew her, as well future generations of filmmakers, who will be living in a world where celluloid will be a medium of the past.

Preserving the films of someone who so lovingly crafted her work has been a rewarding, if painful, experience. When I first met Helen in Columbia in March of 2006, I was profoundly moved by her dedication to recovering her films in the face of mounting odds. You rarely meet someone so passionate about his or her work.

During that visit, Helen set up a 16mm projector that she had salvaged from her flooded home and cleaned, and we had a mini screening of her films MouseholesMadame Winger, andYour New Pig Is Down the Road. I’ve probably seen each of those films a dozen times since that day, and each time they are no less incredible than the first. A small comfort that I’ve had since her death is knowing that through a successful collaborative effort, these films will be available for her son to see, and for artists and lovers of cinema alike to enjoy and learn from many years down the road.

The quick and efficient response of the film preservation community to Helen’s initial struggle with recovering her Katrina-damaged films, and later to preserving her life’s work, is a testament to the impact she had us. As a group of passionate professionals, we can take pride in the knowledge that we have contributed to keeping the memory of Helen Hill and her artwork alive.


Helen and Paul in their Columbia, SC kitchen, during an improptu screening of some of Helen’s films



1. Orphans Film Symposium:: Orphans 5: Science, Industry, and Education. “What is an orphan film” Accessed 19 January 2009 at < http://www.sc.edu/filmsymposium/orphanfilm.html>

2. Joshua Ranger, Sarah Resnick, Loni Shibuyama, and Lauren Sorensen. Preservation History of Rain Dance by Helen Hill. Accessed 19 January 2009 at <www.nyu.edu/tisch/preservation/program/student_work/2007spring/07s_3402_a1.pdf>

3. Descriptions provided by Helen Hill to Dwight Swanson for preservation grant proposals.


Orphan Film Symposium: Orphans 6: The State http://www.nyu.edu/orphanfilm/orphans6/

Orphan Film Symposium: Helen Hill Award http://www.nyu.edu/orphanfilm/orphans8/

Helen Hill Memorial Website. http://www.helenhill.org/news/

Wikipedia entry on Helen Hill http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Hill

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