The Year in Culture | Arts Feature | Indy Week

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2013 was a big year

...depending on who you were. Hundreds of North Carolinians became civil disobedients in Raleigh, even as other indicators, like development activity, show positive signs. Our cities are building on a foundation that was laid years ago. This has led to an explosion of restaurants, brewpubs, cupcakeries, groceries and bicycle shops. Inevitably, artists, filmmakers, musicians and entrepreneurs are finding the Triangle a congenial place to live. In Durham, many hundreds of new housing units are coming online within the urban center. (Here at the INDY, we've just moved our office into a downtown Durham building dedicated to small start-up companies.)

Two aging features of Durham’s urban landscape: Liberty Warehouse (left) and 539 Foster St. (right) - PHOTO BY JUSTIN COOK
  • Photo by Justin Cook
  • Two aging features of Durham’s urban landscape: Liberty Warehouse (left) and 539 Foster St. (right)

It's hard to escape the conclusion that a tipping point has been reached, and that the urban future of Durham and Raleigh is happening now. And yet, this prosperity comes during a time of austerity and cruelty in Raleigh, and trends that have seen the upward drift of wealth to the few, and grinding stagnation for the rest. In this issue, our writers and editors consider 14 stories that are emblematic of our moment and will be exciting to follow in the new year. —David Fellerath

Sundance-bound Cynthia Hill

As we sat down in the offices of the Southern Documentary Fund in downtown Durham, Cynthia Hill had a surprise.

"I brought some cocktails," Hill announced. "We can't do anything without cocktails these days. I refuse to."

Producing a chrome-colored tumbler, Hill poured out a mixture of apple cider and Broadslab Distillery moonshine, patterned after the libation featured in Episode 13 of A Chef's Life, the cooking series set in eastern North Carolina that Hill directs and which just concluded its debut season on PBS.

Three days earlier, the potent potables flowed freely for a different reason. The Sundance Institute announced its selections for the U.S. and world competitions at next month's 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Hill's latest work, Private Violence, was chosen as one of just 16 films in the U.S. Documentary Competition.

While Sundance's official announcement was cause for revelry, the Durham filmmaker admits she learned of her film's inclusion about two weeks earlier.

"My home phone rang, which nobody ever calls except telemarketers, and Carolyn Libresco's name popped up," Hill recalls. "She's the programmer at Sundance. I'm like, 'Holy shit!'"

It was then that the Sundance whirlwind began, starting with its deadline for providing festival deliverables: a 50-word synopsis of the film, a longer summary, bios of the filmmakers, a press kit, publicity stills, a movie poster, etc. Oh, and putting the finishing touches on the doc itself.

But for Hill, that's easy compared with the film's long, tortuous production history. Begun in 2006 by Kit Gruelle, a prominent domestic violence victim's advocate, it was conceived as a historical account of the battered women's movement. However, financing woes and creative differences among the filmmaking principals over the ensuing three years put the project on the verge of collapse.

That's when Hill, who was tangentially involved with the film during its early stages, reviewed a sequence involving a battered woman and the race to arrest her abuser before he tracked her down at a Chatham County women's shelter.

Seeing the film's potential, Hill approached Gruelle and offered to take charge of the foundering project, but only on the condition that Hill assume total creative and financing control.

This white-knuckle footage now forms the pre-title opening six minutes of Private Violence.

"The important thing for me is for the audience to get thrown into that world and to feel that tension and the anxiety and pressure of what's going on in that shelter," Hill says. "That's probably the best thing I've ever filmed."

Cynthia Hill, veteran Durham filmmaker and co-founder of the Southern Documentary Fund, takes her first film to Sundance next month. - PHOTO BY JUSTIN COOK
  • Photo by Justin Cook
  • Cynthia Hill, veteran Durham filmmaker and co-founder of the Southern Documentary Fund, takes her first film to Sundance next month.

Hill shifted the film's focus to Gruelle and Deanna Walters, a young mother from western North Carolina who was seeking protection from her abusive husband.

"I turned my camera and started focusing on Kit," Hill says, "because she was what was interesting to me, her role as an advocate and the way she interacts with victims, law enforcement and the legal world.

"Narratively it was just going to be focused on Kit and Deanna. Deanna's story was going to be the narrative arc of the film, and Kit was going to be the guide through this system and issue."

The slow road to Sundance became more like a speedway, beginning when Hill received a grant from the Sundance Institute last summer. Then last October, the film was one of seven selected for Good Pitch in Chicago, where she pitched her project in front of hundreds of potential advocates, financiers and other filmmakers.

"The response was amazing, and the number of people who were lined up to give us money and talk about the impact [of the film]," Hill remembers. "It was pretty incredible, and I was like, 'Man, we've really hit a nerve here.'"

That's when the previously fanciful notion of getting the film into Sundance began to appear more realistic.

"If I do have a chance to get in Sundance," Hills remembers thinking, "this is probably the best chance I've ever had because I think the stars were aligning. Just the timing of finishing, the buzz, the quality of the film and the issue seems important right now."

The world premiere of Private Violence will be on Jan. 19. Hill says the film will screen four or five more times throughout the festival, which runs Jan. 16–26. Joining her at the premiere will be Gruelle, Walters and Gloria Steinem, who serves as an executive producer for the project.

Although this is Hill's first documentary feature since 2006's The Guest Worker, her decade of overall filmmaking experience qualifies her for the "experienced filmmaker" category in a pre-Sundance survey she completed for the festival.

"I checked the box going, 'God, I don't know if I really am,'" Hill says. "I guess this will help me feel more like an established filmmaker."

Does Hill hope Sundance will open even more filmmaking doors in the future?

"I hope to leverage the hell out of this," she exclaims, sipping her celebratory cocktail. —Neil Morris

Growth promises more events in Downtown Raleigh

This past September, the concurrence of several large arts and cultural events in downtown Raleigh gave rise to a new, overarching one: the M.A.I.N. Event, which stands for Music, Art, Innovation and Noise. Comprising 11 distinct events, the M.A.I.N. Event was a multi-organizational branding tool meant to embrace the growth and diversity of downtown Raleigh.

And, indeed, the events do speak to a diverse constituency reflective of the city's growth. In September, the Hopscotch Music Festival, SPARKcon and the International Bluegrass Music Association's World of Bluegrass convention shared a heading with the African-American Cultural Festival, the Ray Price Capital City Bikefest and Triangle Entrepreneurship Week.

"I think everyone's pretty simpatico," Hopscotch director Greg Lowenhagen says of the array of September events. "We all have a vested interest in the future of the city and the growth of the city."

The Roots perform at the Raleigh City Plaza as part of the 2012 Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, N.C. - FILE PHOTO BY ADAM DAVID KISSICK
  • File photo by Adam David Kissick
  • The Roots perform at the Raleigh City Plaza as part of the 2012 Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, N.C.

Plus, the sort of cross-organizational collaboration that led to the M.A.I.N. Event isn't without precedent. William Lewis, the executive director of PineCone, the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music, says his organization has long depended on working with other groups in the community. "We just have three little offices in downtown Raleigh," he says. "So our campus — our canvas, I guess — is out in the community."

This year, PineCone worked with the International Bluegrass Music Association, based in Nashville, Tenn., to organize the World of Bluegrass Festival downtown. For Lewis, the festival was in perfect alignment with his organization's goals. "We saw it as a good opportunity to get a broader perspective and also to shout it a little bit louder how important this music is to our region, to our city, to our state and beyond," he says. Plus, the city was willing to help. An organizing committee of 50 people formed from more than 20 different public- and private-sector organizations volunteered to plan a corresponding, free street festival as a complement to the World of Bluegrass.

Hopscotch, as a for-profit business, is ineligible for public funding, but it benefits from the city's infrastructure and the availability of City Plaza. "We've been welcomed with open arms, for the most part," Lowenhagen says. (INDY music editor Grayson Currin is the festival's co-director.)

But Hopscotch also—and especially—benefits from the attention paid to downtown Raleigh, as new music festivals have popped up statewide since 2010. A little more than a month after the first Hopscotch, Asheville hosted the inaugural Moogfest, a world-class event featuring predominantly electronic artists formed in partnership between instrument manufacturer Moog Music Inc. and concert promotions giant AC Entertainment. In 2012, the companies split, spawning two different festivals: AC Entertainment's Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit, which debuted in October, and a reimagined Moogfest, which debuts in April.

But, as in Raleigh, Lowenhagen says, this growth of music festivals—and cultural events in general—is more complementary than competitive. "Overall, the feeling is that it's all good for the state of North Carolina," he says. "Lord knows with the national press we've been getting on the political side, our support of the arts and the support of live music from Wilmington all the way through Raleigh, down to Charlotte, up to Asheville is a good thing, and we'll take as much as we can get of it." —Bryan C. Reed


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