Last October, when video footage surfaced of football player Ray Rice knocking his fiancee unconscious in an elevator, the world was shocked at its casually graphic brutality. Having made the domestic-abuse documentary “Private Violence,” filmmaker Cynthia Hill was not the least bit surprised.
Hill is, however, in the odd position of being a beneficiary of the Rice video. The news broke at about the same time HBO debuted “Private Violence,” which went on to garner an Emmy nomination for outstanding informational programming – long-form.
“For sure, the whole Ray Rice elevator incident primed the media to be more receptive,” said Hill, who lives in Durham (and is, like Adam Reed, a UNC alumnus). “We got a lot more callbacks and it was watched by way more folks because of that. New York magazine had us in their top 10 TV shows of the year – not just documentaries but all TV and above some amazing stuff. I don’t think we would have been on the radar enough to get that or the Emmy nomination without heightened awareness of the issue.”
Hill has had quite a run in recent years, including a Peabody Award for “A Chef’s Life,” the PBS cooking show she directs about Vivian Howard’s Kinston restaurant, Chef & The Farmer. If Hill wins with her “Private Violence” nomination, it will be her second Emmy of 2015. Back in May, she won a Daytime Emmy directing award for “A Chef’s Life.”
“It was the first category, I’d had a couple of cocktails, and … well …,” Hill said, trailing off into laughter. “I had nothing written, so I barely even remember what I said. I’m not a fan of being in front of people, I’d rather be behind the camera. But Alex Trebek and Florence Henderson were the presenters. So it was like getting an Emmy from your mom and that really smart guy.”
Hill grew up in Eastern North North Carolina and moved to New York after getting a graduate pharmacy degree from Auburn University (she still works part time as a pharmacist, at Walmart). But Hill’s roots drew her back as she began her filmmaking career, starting with the 2003 documentary “Tobacco Money Feeds My Family.”
Howard got in touch with her after seeing that film, and they struck up a partnership. Hill’s husband, Rex Miller, is co-producer and director of photography of “A Chef’s Life,” which is less a conventional cooking show than a documentary series about old-time Southern ways and the environmental issues of farming. It’s not a show that shirks from harsh realities, such as a hog-killing depicted in season 2.
“A Chef’s Life” has been a resounding critical success, with a James Beard nomination to go with the Peabody and Emmy wins. But getting sponsors and funding to keep it going remains a challenge.
“The Daytime Emmy was the first time a lot of people heard about ‘A Chef’s Life,’” Hill said. “That’s important because it’s all about getting more eyeballs so we can keep making this show we love. We’re still scrambling just as much if not more, but we have learned how to scramble more efficiently. Vivian’s semi-celebrity status makes it easier to get calls returned, and it doesn’t hurt to be able to call it Peabody and Emmy-winning. But you’ve still got to do the dog and pony show.”
As for “Private Violence,” an Emmy win would help Hill’s prospects for one of her next projects, a dramatic big-screen version of it. She’s also in the early stages of launching another documentary – this one about the volatile combination of religion and politics.
“Why, oh why, do I pick subjects like this?” she said with a sigh. “But I can’t help it, it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time – having grown up Pentecostal, leaving that and still bridging the divide. Just watching the Facebook feed and this divide between red and blue, there’s a story to be told about that. Especially now with where we are. There’s a culture war and I feel trapped in the middle of it.”
Find out if she wins
The 36th annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards will be presented Sept. 28 at the Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall in New York City. The ceremony will not be televised, but results will be tweeted throughout the night at @newsemmys.