I have met two real angels in my life. One was Helen Hill, an American animator who lived in Halifax for a few years. The other was her husband, Paul Gailiunas a doctor and part time musician (he headlined the Halifax band Piggy that produced an infectious cd in the late 1990s called Don’t Stop the Calypso). You could not meet two more joyful people. Helen stood out for two reasons. First, she had a pet pig. I always found that to be funny. Kelly (my wife) loves pigs and was always envious of Helen and Paul for taking a pig into their Halifax pad. Helen even made a point of stopping at our office in 2000 or 2001 (I think she was on her way to the States, can’t remember) to bring the pig by. Kelly has a nice shot of the three of us with piggy by her desk. “That was my favourite day in the office ever,” says Kelly.
The other vivid memory is Helen’s film, Mouseholes. I took for competition in 2000. The selection raised a few eyebrows. Sure, it wasn’t the most technically polished film, but Helen has made this raw, real and moving tribute to her grandfather (who had just passed away). It was one of the most down to earth, moving and humane animation films I’ve come across. Like Helen, it was absolutely genuine. She didn’t care about polish, she just had something to say and said it. It remains one of my favourite Canadian animation films (she made it in Halifax) and one of the few animation films that makes me cry (in a good way).
After the New Orleans flood, I was very worried about Helen and Paul and tracked them down to make sure they were okay. Helen eventually replied to say they were fine and had gotten out of town before the flood. She asked if I still had a beta copy of Mouseholes. Apparently, their home had been damaged by the flood and they’d lost a lot of stuff. Fortunately, I still had the tape. In fact, I believe I still have it cause I was waiting for Helen to get settled again before sending it off.
Time passed. Life moved on. I got another email from Helen saying they were going back to New Orleans. They wanted to get their life underway again and, typically, Paul wanted to go back and help the many who needed help. Helen was excited too. She got funding to make a new film. All was well.
One of my most vivid memories of Paul and Helen came at Ottawa 2000 or 2002 (can’t totally recall). I remember talking with them at the Chez Ani at Ottawa 2000 or 2002 and I was stunned at how innocent, how just utterly joyous these two were. It alarmed me. I was cynical about it and thought maybe they were a bit freaky. But in truth, I guess it scared me. Their joy was absolutely genuine. IT wasn’t some faux stance. These two clearly loved life and each other. I guess it scared me because it takes a real commitment to be like that in this world…to just let go of all the doubt and anger and embrace, believe and love life. That takes a lot more courage than cloaking yourself in cynicism and hatredÃ¢â‚¬”as so many of us are prone to do.
Helen was murdered on January 4th, 2007. Paul was wounded. Francis, their son, was unharmed. I’m writing this cause I need to find words, I need to uncover the brief memories, I need to understand why these two people were punished for being good. I have no idea what unfolded. I just have this image of a bloodied, stunned Paul on his knees, cradling their young son as police arrived. Did someone break in? Did someone knock at their door? It’s just so incomprehensible to me. Apparently, Helen’s murder is one of a string of murders happening in New Orleans recently. This one is particularly painful because of who these people were…. how egoless, how generous, how good they were. They were giving so much to New Orleans to help those in need, those who could not help themselves.
This tragedy simply reinforces my own cynicism towards the world. It makes it easier too. That way I can just brush off this incomprehensible act as typical of the world we live in. But, at the same time, however brief our contact, Helen touched me through that one film and memories of her will always make me smile. I’ll think of her bursting energy, smile without end, Helen and Paul dancing Chez Ani. I’ll think of the pig.
If anyone can overcome this act of hell, it’s Paul. And he won’t be alone. Yes, there are friends and family…but Helen will be there too. In life or death, I know that Helen Hill remains an angel among us. That much I believe.
Chris Robinson is the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and a noted author/critic/historian whose books include Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy: A Story of Estonian Animation, Ottawa Senators: Great Stories from the NHLÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s First Dynasty, Unsung Heroes of Animation, and Great Left Wingers and Stole This From a Hockey Card: A Philosophy of Hockey, Doug Harvey, Identity & Booze. He lives in Ottawa with his wife, Kelly, and sons Jarvis and Harrison.