Human Rights Watch FF Women Directors: Meet Cynthia Hill
Human Rights Watch FF Women Directors: Meet Cynthia Hill
Cynthia Hill crafts documentaries that take a complex approach to critical contemporary issues, creating story-driven and visually rich films. Private Violence is Hill’s fourth feature documentary. The subjects of her work range from tobacco farming to Latino migrant labor and Southern foodways, and challenge dominant narratives about the rural South.
Hill allows unexpected stories to unfold, laying bare the assumptions behind the systems that drive people’s everyday lives. Each of Hill’s documentaries open up space for vigorous community engagement with viewers from wide-ranging political and ideological beliefs. Her producer/director credits include Tobacco Money Feeds My Family, The Guestworker, February One, and A Chef’s Life.
Hill’s work has appeared nationally on PBS and the Sundance Channel and featured in festivals around the globe. She has lectured at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and is the co-founder of the Southern Documentary Fund, a nonprofit organization established to support place-based storytelling. Hill is from Pink Hill, NC, and currently resides in Durham, NC. (Press material)
Private Violence will play at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 13 and will air on HBO in October.
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
CH: One in four US women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. The most dangerous place for many women is their own homes. Private Violence illustrates how this epidemic of violence affects two women: Kit Gruelle, a domestic violence survivor-turned-advocate, and Deanna Walters, a young woman who recently escaped a near-death experience at the hands of her estranged husband. Kit and Deanna are two powerful women at different stages in the trajectory from victim to survivor. Their paths address the oft-asked question that women in domestic-violence situations face at every turn: “Why doesn’t she just leave?”
The film delves deep into why this is the wrong question to ask. I hope the audience comes away with a deeper understanding of domestic violence — what women really endure — and with more empathy around this issue. We need to begin to ask different questions — more fruitful, healing questions. I hope people walk away with a sense of how powerful the work of advocates can be. That was certainly a surprise to me — recognizing what a difference it can make to have someone on your side. It can empower you, and it can change your life. Ultimately, Private Violence is about strength and survival and a sense of hope for necessary change.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
CH: There were so many surprises in telling this story: how deep the misconceptions are around domestic violence, how complicated and pervasive this issue is, how we are still ensconced in this culture of victim blaming. I encountered such horrifying stories, such unbelievable acts of violence, and institutions that revictimized the very people they are supposed to be helping. But what took me the most by surprise was the unconditional support, love, and acceptance I witnessed. The victims were often so alone and lost and simply in need of someone to believe them — and believe in them. Kit and other advocates like her provide that to them, and it’s something I had never encountered before. Kit’s total acceptance, her supportive, nonjudgmental approach, is unique and special. The more I learned about Kit’s work and the work of advocates, the more I realized that Kit was the story.
Through her and Deanna, we learn that part of the problem around domestic violence is the private nature of this crime. This is a crime that is so common, but an issue that is treated and viewed as private, shrouded in secrecy and shame. Part of that is because our society is so steeped in this notion that what happens in the home is no one else’s business. We need to change that and bring this issue out into the light.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
CH: This is a tough question because the whole act of filmmaking is one, big, enormous challenge. At the end of the day, one of my biggest challenges also ended up being the path of least resistance. That required having the strength and the courage to listen to my own intuition. For a long time, I tried to make this a historical documentary filled with “expert” talking heads. A lot of that had to do with the resistance I faced for wanting to tell the story that spoke to me the most, the story that I ultimately ended up telling. I love that Kit and Deanna had the strength to share their truths with us. It was important for me to tell this story in a way where the women don’t disappear, where the statistics don’t speak for them, but instead the women speak for themselves.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
CH: At the end of the day, you just have to do it. Don’t wait for the right moment. Don’t wait for the money, because it rarely ever comes. Don’t wait for the support you need. Just do it. Also, trust your gut, your intuition. Don’t let the naysayers squash your voice. You know the story you want to tell.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
CH: The biggest misconception is that I tell “local” stories because I live in the South and my stories take place in the South. That label of “local” is used pejoratively, but I’ve come to wear it as a badge of honor. It’s used to pigeonhole, and to suggest that so-called local stories don’t matter to the country as a whole. But the South is a microcosm for what is going on in the rest of the country.
I’ve made a conscious choice to move from New York and return home. My films are always about what I see in my own backyard, issues and subjects that are near and dear to me. You can make important films from a place like North Carolina that have national relevance. That is what compelled me to start the Southern Documentary Fund. I wanted to bring more attention to Southern filmmakers and to make it possible for folks to stay here and to tell these stories. It’s been great to see folks like Ryan White and Ben Cotner and their film The Case Against 8 get the sort of attention that they deserve. If we can just get the foundations and folks with wealth to recognize that talent and see the impact these films can have, we could do more amazing things. And it certainly would make it easier for these filmmakers to do their work.
W&H: Name your favorite woman directed film and why.
CH: There are so many great female directors out there. I thought the documentary Valentine Road was just amazing. Director Marta Cunningham did an incredible job of just being there and allowing people to speak for themselves, giving the audience a true sense of what this community is like and what they are struggling with from both sides. She was not judging them, and I really respect that.