The communal filmmaking of Welcome to Pine Hill | Bleader

The communal filmmaking of Welcome to Pine Hill


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Shannon Harper (far right) visits a friends back yard.
  • Shannon Harper (far right) visits a friend's back yard.
Welcome to Pine Hill, playing this weekend at Facets Multimedia as part of the African Diaspora Film Festival, would be worth checking out even if writer-director Keith Miller weren’t planning to attend both screenings. But since he will be there, you can expect a fascinating Q&A in addition to a good movie. Pine Hill grew out of a chance encounter between Miller and star Shannon Harper (who plays a character based closely on himself) that also led to the two men becoming friends. Their relationship is reflected in the movie’s casual vibe as well as its pointed sense of curiosity.

Miller is white and teaches at NYU; Harper is black and once made money by selling drugs. While Pine Hill doesn’t feel like an inside look at Harper’s life (Miller is too honest a director to feign longtime familiarity), neither does it feel like a sociological investigation. Miller respects the individuality of each of his participants (many of them actual friends of Harper’s), who return the gesture by speaking candidly about themselves. In a February interview with New York Public Media, Harper admitted, “Keith brought out my emotions for the film—emotions that I haven’t felt in a very long time. He got me to bring those out and share them on camera.”

The movie centers on a crisis that could hit anyone, regardless of race or class: Harper’s character gets diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and learns he has less than a year to live. As he reflects—neither sentimentally nor angrily—on how he lives his life, his encounters with family, friends, and strangers seem poignant even when the conversations are banal. You can sense Harper savoring these moments, drinking up the humanity that surrounds him. (In contrast, the movie’s final scenes, which show Harper walking alone in the woods of upstate New York, feel especially sad.) His performance meshes well with Miller’s direction. Taken as a whole, their collaboration conveys an uplifting philosophy of movies as a form of community building.

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