Interview* by Sandra Davidson | Photos Courtesy Cynthia Hill
I first heard of Cynthia Hill in an undergraduate folklore class at UNC-Chapel Hill. One morning my teacher, folklorist and rock-and-roller MC Taylor, screened “Tobacco Money Feeds My Family,” Cynthia’s first feature film, as an example of a folklorist’s approach to documenting something controversial — and cultural — like tobacco. In the film, Cynthia chronicles the lives of tobacco farmers from her hometown while reckoning with the deathly implications of the crop. It was the first time I’d seen a documentary about a North Carolina community like the one I am from, and the first time I’d heard of a woman from our state doing that kind of work. It was life changing, and it greatly influenced my own choice to pursue documentary work.
It’s been over a decade since Cynthia scrapped together the resources to make that film, and things have changed dramatically for her. She’s produced two feature films: “The Guestworker: Bienvenidos a Carolina del Norte” (2006), a film about Hispanic farmworkers in rural North Carolina, and “Private Violence” (2014), a documentary about women who are survivors of domestic violence which was screened on HBO. She’s won two Emmys and a Peabody Award for her hit television show “A Chef’s Life,” and moved Markay Media, her production company, from her house into an office-space in Durham, where she now employees around 10 people full-time. In our interview, she reflects on her unlikely journey to filmmaking, her dream of making North Carolina a celebrated documentary hub, and how she managed to get unprecedented access to film one of the best NASCAR teams in the country.
What got you interested in making films?
It’s not a natural path for me to get to being a filmmaker. I grew up in eastern North Carolina in a very rural community. Professions for women were pretty much schoolteacher, nurse, and then pharmacist, [which] was an outlier but I had a direct connection with the pharmacist in town because my mom worked for him. I thought, “That sounds like a pretty good profession.” I was always really good at science and math, so it seemed fairly logical and I went to pharmacy school. When I was in college, I wasn’t necessarily enthralled with pharmacy, and you had to have a huge chunk of hours in a pharmacy, and I just kept putting it off because I didn’t really like it.
At the time I was bartending [at a place] called the Omni Europa. I met this crew [there] from Los Angeles, and they were there doing one of these accident reconstruction shows that was really popular in the early 90s. I started hanging out with them and going on set and I thought, “This is kind of fun.” So, I went to LA. that next summer and worked in a pharmacy, but [I] got to hang out with people who were doing more creative things. [I] realized there were other things out there you could do besides science and math. It was just a whole new world, and I didn’t even know it existed.
So when I came back to school, everything I started doing had a video component to it. If you were supposed to write a paper, I would make a video instead. I [had] this weird roundabout way of getting into it. I just was good at it, and I don’t know why. I was just good at storytelling. I think that’s probably something about being Southern and hearing your grandma and your granddaddy tell stories all your life. You just sort of pick it up, and you don’t even know you’ve picked it up.
I was going to ask you about that. I notice narrative similarities in how approach documentary work and the way my family has always shared stories. I’ve wondered if you felt that when you’re putting together a story or a film.
I think so. It’s also [about] trying to make connections. All my life I’ve been really shy. I’d stand back. I don’t usually engage. That’s how I developed as a filmmaker. I’ll go into a scene, and I won’t say anything. It makes me a really good observational filmmaker. These things felt like deficits when I was growing up. I wasn’t really comfortable engaging with people, or having conversations. But what it’s allowed me to do is just be really curious about other people. I’m a really good listener. I pay attention. That is something I’ve carried over to the filmmaking process.
How did we get from you making films associated with coursework to you making your first independent project?
I started really brewing on this idea of wanting to tell the story of tobacco because through pharmacy school and graduate school, tobacco was really vilified. I grew up working in tobacco, and my family did that kind of work. That’s what I did every single summer. I was struggling with how to compartmentalize my affinity for the crop. I didn’t know what to do with knowing it was so harmful. I also could see tobacco farmers struggling, and I could see on the horizon that things were really going to change for our community and the regions that depended on tobacco. So I had this notion that I was going to make a film about tobacco farming. I set out to try to raise $10,000, and I was going to spend a season filming tobacco farmers. I was going to have a film by the end of that. Five years and about $100,000 later, I had my first film.
It just was an organic process of having a story inside of me that I needed to tell. I’ve tried to continue on that path of telling stories that are important to me. [I’m] not just doing this to be a media maker. The drive for me is the story. If I don’t have that, it’s hard for me to do anything. It’s hard for me to work if I’m not really passionate about the story itself.
When did you first identify as a documentarian?
After my second film. Or maybe it was my third film. It took me even longer to call myself an artist because I didn’t feel like I really was.
And why was that?
I don’t know. I just didn’t feel like I was legitimate. Until this past summer, I was still on the roster of Walmart and working periodically as a relief pharmacist. It took me that long to feel, one, financially comfortable with letting go of that security blanket of being a pharmacist, and two, to say, “I really am a filmmaker, and that’s what I do.”
How has that changed the way that you carry yourself as a working artist?
Now when I fill out forms, filmmaker is the first thing I put instead of pharmacist. When they say occupation, filmmaker is the first thing because before I would put pharmacist/filmmaker.
I think that would surprise people.
I struggled with it. I think it’s because I didn’t have any training for it. I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t do any of the coursework. I didn’t know the history of the format. When I think about what is my training as a storyteller, I watched a ton of T.V. growing up. That’s what I did. That’s it, and listening to the folks around me tell stories, and just being observant. That’s really my training. For a long time it felt like I’m just sort of dabbling in filmmaking. I realize I’m no longer dabbling. I’m really making films.
When did “A Chef’s Life’ become a concept that you wanted to pursue?
Vivian reached out to me because she was really interested in telling these stories about the dying foodways of our region. We met a couple times and talked about it. I got to know her and realized that she could be a good conduit for that story. Her story in [and] of itself was really compelling. She was impressive, and I really didn’t know that. We grew up together, [but] she was much younger than me. I knew she had come back to Kinston and opened a restaurant, but I honestly didn’t think it would succeed because that town was dying, but she was doing it anyway. I admired her drive, her tenacity, and her bravery. Then I realized she really knew what she was talking about, so it made sense to try to use her as a conduit.
At the time, I had this loose connection to somebody in New York who was like, “Yeah, I can get something on the Food Network.” So I talked to Vivian and was like, “Let’s just shoot the pilot and just see if we can get it on the Food Network. The Food Network said no. Vivian was an unknown in the South. I was an unknown in the TV world. They didn’t pay us any attention whatsoever.
I knew we had something special, but I needed somebody else to realize that we had something special. I sent my friend from the PBS station in South Carolina [an] 11-minute clip and she called me back in 12 minutes. She was like, “Oh my God. This is so good.” It took off from there. I think both Vivian and I were naïve enough and passionate enough just to jump [in] headfirst. We didn’t care if it was going to be successful. We just wanted to do it because we felt like it was important. That’s the reason it is successful, because our motives were pure. We wanted to tell a story about our region and the people we love. We felt like the South had been maligned for a very long time, and we felt like we needed to tell a different story about the South.
To see what has happened in Kinston as a result of what y’all have made together definitely shows the power of the arts. How has the success of that show changed or challenged the way you think about impact?
It’s like how do you repeat that? That’s really the scary thing, and also it’s sort of scary thinking that we can’t stop. It seems like there’s a lot that relies on us telling these stories and having that presence on national T.V. We do recognize the power of that. We recognize that it’s much larger than either one of us. That’s a lot of pressure.
Well tell me about your new NASCAR series which seems like quite a lane shift.
Yes and no. It might look like it from the outside, but for me it’s one of those iconic, Southern topics that people think they know. I’ve had this list of things I would love to do, and it’s always been in the top five. I grew up watching it on Sundays because my granddaddy was a huge Richard Petty fan. You had to watch it. There was no choice. It was on.
I think that you have to be really passionate about what it is that you want to do in this world because, if not, you lose your way. You really do. You get so many roadblocks in the process. You have to be driven. Sometimes things work out for you, and that was the NASCAR thing. We had a connection via another connection who sent notes to Hendrick for us, and then we got a reply back. Within six months of us proposing it, we were filming with Hendrick Motor Sports, which, I would say, is the most successful NASCAR team/company out there. We were getting access like no one else was getting access, especially to their teams because they were so private, but they really liked the work me and the team had done, and they understood what we were trying to do. It was really challenging for us, but I’m really proud of what we were able to accomplish.
What’s in the hopper now?
We are working on a new concept with Vivian that’s going to be an hour-long and on primetime. It’s still rooted in the South, but it’s about looking at other communities in the South — immigrant communities and native communities — and their foodways and how our food overlaps. The first season is going to be six episodes. It’s different. It’s a new challenge for both me and Vivian and the team. We’ll see, but just because you’re successful with one thing doesn’t mean that it’s going to translate for the next thing. It makes me nervous. The other thing we’re working on is a future doc with HBO. We’ve been working on it for about two years, and I really can’t talk about that too much because it’s kind of secret. It’s exciting.
Tell me about your role in establishing the Southern Documentary Fund (SDF).
I founded that with a group of people. I don’t think that when we started the organization that I knew how important it was going to be. I was struggling, personally, and the filmmakers and the artists in this community were also struggling because we didn’t have a support system. We were operating in our silos. We needed to have some connections, some connective tissue. We also just needed basic functions of being able to raise money, and we didn’t have anything set up here in this state or even in the region that served that purpose. It was so hard. We weren’t respected outside of the region, and we weren’t respected in the region either because there was this thought that if you were talented you wouldn’t be here. You would be in New York or LA. Because we stayed here, because we wanted to stay here, because the stories we wanted to tell were here, we were looked down upon. We were making — and I was told this on many occasions — local stories with a little “l.” I started saying, “We’re making local stories with a big L.” Every film is local. Every story is local. It just depends on what your local is. If you’re making a story about Brooklyn, that’s local. But for some reason that has more of an appeal than making something about Pink Hill, NC. Why? If it’s a good story, it’s a good story no matter where it is.
I agree. Amen. So, when was Southern Documentary Fund established?
2002. I think there’s maybe 60 projects that SDF is sponsoring. I’m very proud of that legacy. I’ve stepped back, and I’m an informal advisor. It’s way bigger than I ever thought it could be.
The Southern Documentary Fund has received fiscal and leadership support from the North Carolina Arts Council and I believe you received a program grant for your film "Tobacco Money Feeds My Family." What that mean to you?
It validated the work for me. It showed that other people thought it was also important, not just me. Knowing that other people saw the value in what I was trying to do and the stories I was trying to tell was important to me, especially early on. That’s why these grants that we’re trying to give out with SDF are so important for people who are getting started on projects. It’s showing that other people see value in what you’re doing.
What are the biggest strengths of the arts community that you are a part of in North Carolina?
I would say that we’re all really supportive of one another. It doesn’t feel competitive, which I think is really unique in this community. I hope that this area becomes an area for makers. It’s not just an area for education. I think we are getting to a place now where other filmmakers think, “You know, I could end up in Durham, North Carolina, and there are folks like me there.” People who graduate from schools here and want to be a filmmaker—they don’t automatically just leave. That wouldn’t have been a reality for folks ten years ago.
How can North Carolina better support artists?
Valuing it more. The resources are limited, and that’s always been [a] big frustration for me. Understanding how intricate art and artists are to the success of a community and a state is really important. You are out there talking about economic development and trying to woo companies to come and be a part of North Carolina. Having that art community is a big draw, and artists need support so that we do have assets to offer to our own communities.
*This interview was edited and condensed.