It is difficult to express the loss of Helen Hill. It’s like Tinkerbell at her very best, murdered.
Her middle name was Wingard. Helen Wingard Hill.
In death most everyone gets talked up, becomes bigger and better, becomes kinder, smarter, gentler, funnier. There is no need to talk up Helen Hill. It may not even be possible.
There are no right people to be first people shot this year in the Jefferson Parish of New Orleans. No right people to be the fourth and fifth shot in the Big Easy in a 14-hour period last Thursday, January 4, 2007. All the same, with exquisite perfection, Paul Gailiunas and Helen Hill are so much the wrong people.
News reports from Louisiana say that Paul and Helen were shot in their home at 5:30am. That Helen died in her house, shot in her neck. That Paul was shot several times and was found in the doorway, on his knees, holding their two-year-old son Francis. Pops. Paul and Helen called him Pops. And Pop. And Poppy.
The reports say that friends and neighbours gathered, weeping, outside the little white house in the Faubourg Marigny district. That Paul was hospitalized, had surgery, was released from hospital and left for South Carolina without going back to the little white house.
That Helen’s funeral was due to be held at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in her home town of Columbia, at 2pm on Wednesday, January 10.
In Halifax, Paul and Helen reached many people in many communities, through the Atlantic Filmmakers Co-operative, Food Not Bombs and the North End Community Health Centre. In their neighbourhood. In the parks. On stage. Behind a projector.
There was some meeting at AFCOOP. We were waiting and waiting for Helen and she was late. I was thinking “she’s late” and in she walks with this cake and some story about Paul not putting it in the oven on time. It was some occasion. I guess she thought a cake was more important than punctuality. And looking back, she was right.
—Jane Porter, location sound recordist
Helen made a lot of food for people, and lots of fun food like popcorn and candyfloss. Paul and Helen had their own cotton candy machine.
I was talking to Helen before I knew her well. She was just going to get Rosie, her first pig, and I said something stupid and insensitive about having pigs for dinner. Helen looked down and then looked up with a tiny smile. She said, “Yah, a lot of people say that.” In one tiny phrase and one tiny smile she showed me what she faced as a vegan. It was so important in her life. And she showed me, in that little moment, that she totally forgave me. Most people would have said, “You asshole,” but not Helen. She dealt with people who were not nice to her in the nicest way possible.
—Chris Spencer-Lowe, AFCOOP program director
Paul and Helen hated marshmallows. They liked candy but hated anything with gelatin in it because gelatin comes from pigs’ feet. They lived on Falkland Street and took their pigs, first Rosie and then Daisy, for walks.
I honestly thought that since the Toronto Globe and Mail’s cover photo was of Helen and Paul it must be a good story—a story about great people doing amazing things in New Orleans. Maybe they received some humanitarian award for their good deeds? Maybe they ran into a burning building to save a chicken and a piglet? Just seeing their picture put me in a good mood automatically. Then I read the headline. I remember Paul’s first day at medical school. I worked in the health sciences library at Dalhousie. He came in and introduced himself to everyone. We all thought, “What a strange thing to do, but what a nice guy.” The second time we met he talked to me like I was an old friend. We met and talked often at the school and around Halifax, and he always told me about his girlfriend and how she was the best person in the world. Then one day she was there and I found out he wasn’t exaggerating. Two people could not be more kind-hearted and friendly. And every object, action and event in their lives made sense—except for this.
—Lou Duggan, posted at www.helenhill.org
There is a free foot care clinic now at the North End Community Health Centre, where old folks and people with diabetes can get their feet looked after. Paul started the first free foot care clinic, at St. Andrew’s Church, while he was still a medical student.
For a time, Helen and I shared a community, and that was enough for me to love her. And I’m not typically that loving, you know? I didn’t even realize I loved her. I knew she was wonderful and kind and fun. I knew Mouseholes was one of my favorite AFCOOP shorts. I didn’t realize I loved her until today. Now I am facing every philosophy, theory and spiritual idea that I have learned, and they are all false to me. I am one, not just with the victim, but also the killer. She’s gone to a better place. All life is suffering. I imagine it is Helen herself who is reminding me, again and again, as I hit the wall with these good intentions that have lost their meaning for me, that it’s only because it’s still today. I contemplate, for the nth time, Helen and Paul’s passion for helping people.
—Joanne Kerrigan, filmmaker
Paul called Helen Chicken. As in Chicken Hill.
In 2000 Helen asked several women to join a Ladies’ FilmBee, to make a group of Super-8 films for a festival in Toronto. It was scary—some of us had never made a film before. We shot our pieces using AFCOOP’s Super-8 cameras and then went to Helen and Paul’s tiny apartment to develop them. In the bathroom, Helen had blacked out the window and the space around the door, set up a timer, buckets for water, measured containers of chemicals. She squeezed a pillow to sit on between the tub and the toilet. In the blackness, alleviated only by a red light, we followed her carefully written instructions, with Helen giving urgent encouragement from the other side of the door. When each of us emerged, dazed, from her dark room she kindly oohed and aahed at our developing skills and then fed us. We met again, at Lulu and Jim’s, and spent hours colouring, bleaching, scratching and decorating our films. Helen pieced them together and took them to Toronto.
—Marie Koehler, video artist
While they were in Halifax Helen and Paul joined in every Gay Pride parade. They believed in anyone’s cause, with the idea that to have a cause was a path towards saving something good.
I have a cafe, Dio Mio Gelato, and remember them arriving for their weekly Food Not Bombs meetings to plan how best to offer the homeless healthy free meals. They frequented the cafe as we had vegan foods. They would gingerly suggest replacing the honey in our soy gelati for the vegans. I’d say the honey is healthier than white sugar. They’d say something about pig’s blood being used to process white sugar. We’d have the conversation every week. Always with a streak of bright colour in her hair and smudges on her tiny wire-rim spectacles, Helen would drop by the film co-op to plan the next animation workshop. She had the ability to attract participants like no other instructor. Her enthusiasm was the ultimate advertising and she always filled her class with friends. If the students were not friends at the beginning, they were by the end. Nola, their pet cat, was the crankiest cat I have ever met. They did not try to change her; they just loved that cat for who she was. At Vegan Passover everyone was to wear a hat, no challenge for Paul who boasted a hat collection Imelda Marcos would envy. The world desperately needs more Helen Hills and gravely lost the only one last week.
—Walter Forsyth, AFCOOP executive director
There was a cat living on Creighton Street who hated all other animals. All other cats and all dogs. Helen thought it would be a good thing to introduce the cat to a pig and she brought Daisy up to the third floor, the pig’s trotters clicking and clacking up two flights of stairs. The cat and pig sniffed noses and the cat decided the Daisy was acceptable. Helen was sitting on the floor with the cat and the pig. “See?” she said, laughing her tinkly laugh.
Helen, Your name looks like an island there, alone. A one-word poem. But sweet, communal Helen, you were rarely ever really alone. Even plodding along alone to the film co-op—fortitude, resilience, determination, all words that capture you—and emerging alone from the windowless animation room after hours inside, bleary-eyed, you gave back: eminent gentleness, generosity, good sense. Paul, and little Francis Pops, are the ones who are alone. Helen, you are an angel, hovering above us. Choosing simple over complicated, hope over cynicism. How you would want us to see your violent death as a provocation—to help the poor and maligned, to choose life, every time.
—Lis van Berkel, freelance journalist
Since Paul and Helen came to Halifax many more people wear fun hats.
Helen had a unique way with words. Especially how she chose to use the word hopeless. “That little yard is just hopeless,” or “My studio just looks so hopeless right now,” she’d say. She didn’t use that word the way a lot of people would, to suggest that something was too far gone to be worthy of care. In fact, I’m pretty convinced she might have even meant the opposite. If Helen called something hopeless, most times her next action would be something to improve its situation. I don’t think she really believed that anything truly worth caring about could ever be hopeless.
—Becka Barker, teacher and filmmaker
Paul and Helen had better things to do than clean house. Their flat on Falkland Street was a chaotic, riotous, colourful mess of books and music, film and equipment, pictures and big cooking pots, pig and cat, people coming and going. It was always warm and welcoming. That building burned down in 2004.
I remember the debut screening of Tunnel of Love, the video for “The Accidental Romance” by Piggy. I remember this inciting excitement in the room at the Bike Shop Cafe when Paul threw it over to Helen and the projector and then we were watching this amazing little film. This unassuming person took DIY to the next level and showed this little classic film that at the same time made you feel you could do it too.
—James Covey, former music journalist
One fine evening Paul and Helen took a projector, a generator and snacks over to the Common, to the space behind the tennis courts. They pinned a big sheet up on the fence and lots of people came with chairs and blankets and lounged on the grass and watched movies under a big summer sky.
It is very hard to pick a single memory of Helen. Some of the best times of my life were spent with her and Paul. September 1996 is important to me because that’s when I met Helen at the Atlantic Film Festival. It was only the second time I had ever seen her. I was volunteering at the AFF. It was at Park Lane Cinemas. She was lining up. She was wearing a striped hat. She looked so friendly and interesting and nice. This seems adolescent, but I wanted her to know that my name was Helen, too. I decided right then that I wanted to be her friend. Helen was to become my best friend. I think about her in the film festival line-up and realize that my life is in divided in two parts—my life before I met Helen and my life with Helen in it. I know that she has been an important part of many people’s lives and I feel so much sorrow for Paul and her parents, Becky and Kevin, and her brother Jake and for her son Francis. I feel sorry for myself—Helen knew I was especially good at this and would be often buoying me up with some sweet gesture—some fun car trip, a note she had written, a zine she had made just for me and, once, years ago when we just became friends, an elaborate packed lunch I found one snowy morning under my front steps on my way to a job that terrified me. She did so much and was so involved I don’t know how she found the time to be the best friend I could ever hope to have. If she were here with me now I know she would be sad that I am sad but she would say, “Helen Bredin, think of five things that you have to be happy about. Right now.” She would be stern with me. I would hesitate and mumble that it was not possible that there is anything good anymore. But she would eventually get me to do it and I would have to say, Helen, that having had the privilege to be your friend, to be a part of your life, would top the list. I love you and miss you.
—Helen Bredin, freelance videographer
If Helen Hill was Tinkerbell on earth, many of us here were asking ourselves to clap and whisper, “I believe. I believe.” Anyone who knew Helen claps and whispers still.
A service and jazz processional for Helen Hill will be held Saturday, January 13 at 12pm. See "Reality Bites" for details. Donations are now being accepted in Helen’s name to Doctors Without Borders and to the Helen Addison Wingard Scholarship Fund, a scholarship named for Helen’s grandmother. Visit www.helenhill.org to make a donation. And, if you'd like to share any memories or feelings here, please do so by commenting below.