Program Report: Cynthia Hill – A Chef’s Life Producer/Director

CynthiaHilletalwebIn the picture, Rotarian Anna Jones, Janeen Gringrich, who worked with Cynthia on Private Violence, President Vandana Dake, Cynthia Hill, and Rachel Raney, Executive Director of the Southern Documentary Fund. 

Documentary film maker Cynthia Hill expressed a reluctance to do public speaking and immediately ran into a common problem with trying to let your work do the talking…balky audio-visual equipment. With some help from her friends, she finally got things rolling with two video clips, the first from her award-winning documentary on domestic violence called Private Violence, a 77 minute feature length film, and the second from her PBS series A Chef’s Life. A trailer for Private Violence can be found on the movie’s website at www.privateviolence.com along with a short biography of Ms. Hill, who now lives in Durham but is originally from Pink Hill, North Carolina over near Kinston.

Kinston it turns out is the location of the Chef and the Farmer, the restaurant that Ms. Hill’s friend Vivian Howard and her husband Benjamin Knight opened after working for top chefs in New York City. The restaurant and the farm country around it is the setting for A Chef’s Life.  It is also one of the poorest congressional districts in the country.

Almost immediately after the clips finished, Ms. Hill opened the floor for questions. To my surprise, she was remarkably at ease at the microphone.  Maybe the self-deprecation was a real “aw shucks” southern thing or “what the heck can I talk to Rotarians about?”  Or maybe it was Arthur Rogers, playing the gushing fan-boy, that put her at ease. They sure got me curious about the PBS series. I’d never heard of it and have to admit I’ve lost track of PBS programming since the last time Time-Warner scrambled up the channels again a few years ago. With Ms. Hill’s help, I found the PBS website where all the episodes can be streamed on your computer, tablet, or smart phone.

I watched one episode, then two, then three and then decided I better write something before I cued up another. Arthur is right; the series is very engaging. Arthur mentioned the warm feelings about small southern towns like the one he grew up in.  I’m a city boy but I did spend a lot of time a few years ago in towns like Bunn, Jackson, Warsaw, Tar Heel, and Rose Hill.  It’s definitely different east of I-95 and the show demonstrates all that’s good and gracious about the people there.  However, the only food I learned to appreciate “down east” was really good pork barbeque.

The restaurant and the show are really about the farm to food movement and part of the pleasure of watching it comes from the recipes that Vivian prepares for this “who would expect it here” fine dining restaurant. What that woman can do with corn will blow your mind. You also see the impact that this movement is having on agriculture in the region where there are a lot of small farms that once depended on tobacco.

However, this is not just a food show. There is plenty of drama involved. The restaurant burns down in the first show. Vivian and Benjamin have twins.  Hiring and training in a place without a whole lot of fine dining options, hanging on to sources, staff and their own sanity while rebuilding, make for bingeing on downloaded episodes, if not strawberries.

While Ms. Hill was solving the AV problems, Rachel Raney, the Executive Director of the Southern Documentary Fund went to the podium to describe this organization, which Ms. Hill co-founded in 2002. Ms. Hill later shared that they were determined to prove that “art can make money.” It’s tough, she indicated, but it can be done and described the mix of determination and dread they faced on their designated mornings for making fund raising calls.

President Vandana, who is on the board of the Southern Documentary Fund, deferred to Rotarian Anna Jones for Ms. Hill’s introduction. Anna, of course, has produced her own documentary about her father’s involvement in the civil rights movement, Chairman Jones: An Improbable Leader, got some help from the organization and has a page on their website with a link to a trailer.

Submitted by Jay Zenner

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