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By David Finkelstein | September 10, 2012

In 2001, filmmaker Helen Hill found a collection of extraordinary handmade dresses in the garbage on a street in New Orleans. Hill dug around for more information in the garbage, and found out that the dresses had been hand sewn by a local woman who had recently passed away in her 90s. She began to work on an animated film about the woman and her dresses, interviewing members of her church. (That film is presented in fragments here). Her fellow parishioners describe Mrs. Florestine Kinchen as a cheerful and positive woman: “She didn’t come to church to get the Holy Spirit, she brought the Spirit to church with her.” She not only handmade her dresses, but also hats and shoes. Since Hill’s films always exhibited a kind of hand-made, folk art quality, and a fascination with the creativity of ordinary people, this was a perfect subject for her. In this film, which was completed by Hill’s husband Paul Gailiunas after Hill’s tragic murder in 2007, he says that Hill felt an explicit kinship between the creativity of Mrs. Kinchen, who turned the necessity of making her own clothes into an artistic passion, with the counter-cultural community of artists, musicians, and filmmakers that Hill and her husband had long been a part of. New Orleans, Hill said, attracted creative people and all kinds of outcasts from Southern society.

Hill was an artist who lived out her dream of fostering community through the arts every day. We see fragments of her home movie style footage of the neighborhood (hand painted and tinted in the familiar manner of many experimental filmmakers), while Gailiunas explains how she befriended most of the neighborhood kids, who came over daily, and how she taught low cost filmmaking classes through a collective. Soon the couple started their own family.

Gailiunas is a bandleader and a songwriter who composes in a folky, funky style akin to Hill’s films. His jazz and calypso styled songs turn “The Florestine Collection” into an appealing musical film, narrating parts of the story as a natural accompaniment to the remaining fragments from Hill’s film. Katrina forced the family to flee as their neighborhood was flooded, and the flowing patterns of Mrs. Kinchen’s dresses make a natural counterpart to Gailiunas’ musical depiction of the flood. (Their house was mostly ruined, along with Hill’s writings, artwork, and many films.)

Gailiunas was afraid of the violence and chaos and toxicity of the post-Katrina city, but Hill was fearless by nature. Her fierce identification with the city and the survivors means that giving up on New Orleans was not an option for her, any more than giving up on her film about the dresses. The family moved back after a year.

Very soon after, a stranger entered their house and murdered Hill. Gailiunas was also wounded as he sheltered their son. Looking at the footage of Hill, frolicking in front of the house with the baby, with her beautiful sense of joy and boundless possibility, it is impossible for the viewer not to love her and mourn for her death at such a young age.

The story is of course inherently dramatic and overwhelming, combining the extreme hopefulness and creativity of Hill, Gailiunas, and their community, their love for the people of New Orleans, and the extreme difficulties and multiple tragedies that have taken place all over the city. Throughout my life, I have known many people like Hill and Gailiunas, non-conformist artists who live in a marginal economy, with a relentless creativity and joy which is focussed on creating community through art and music rather than through any religious or political doctrine. Unlike many bohemian communities, artists like Hill and Gailiunas have no interest whatsoever in hipster posing, and instead embrace an inclusiveness which tries to bring together people of all ages, races, and backgrounds. However, this is the first time I’ve ever seen a film which depicts such a community. Though such communities are common, the very fact that they eschew doctrines and creeds means that they have no identifying label.

Hill dedicated her life to the notion that everyone has a creative spirit, and that this spirit can turn circumstances of grinding poverty and deprivation into joyful opportunities to come together with your neighbors, and this is why she was so strongly drawn to the kindred spirit of Mrs. Kinchen and her dresses. Hill and her husband grounded their beliefs in a direct connection to their own creativity, and equally direct connections to those living around them, so it comes as no surprise that Gailiunas and his son, in the end, are able to find the tremendous inner resilience to survive such an immense catastrophe, and that he is able to pay tribute to her spirit by completing her film in such a simple, powerful, and utterly appropriate way. Hopefully, the film will also draw more attention to Hill, and to a wonderful collection of her films which was released on DVD in 2008 by Peripheral Produce.

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