Jim Hillier 1941 – 2014

Jim HillierJim Hillier, who was Senior Lecturer in Film in the Department of Film, Theatre & Television until his retirement in 2005, has died after a long battle with leukemia.

Jim was a brilliant teacher, wonderfully generous colleague and a widely admired film scholar. He was never one for looking back or for advertising his achievements, but Jim was also one of the pioneers of film education in Britain. It is easy to forget, now that film, television and media studies are widely represented in our universities, that the first undergraduate courses were only established in the 1970s. Before joining the Department of Film & Drama at Bulmershe College in 1979 Jim was a key member (and latterly Deputy Head) of the British Film Institute Educational Advisory Service at a time when the Service’s work was establishing the basis for the development of film teaching in schools, further education colleges, and finally colleges of education and universities. While still at the BFI Jim became moderator of the first formal examinations in film, the AEB O/A level Film Studies course and maintained that commitment to work in schools when he joined Film & Drama by becoming moderator in the mid 1980s for the WJEC A-level in Film Studies.

Jim loved cinema and delighted in its many forms and its varied cultural contexts. He had enviably broad areas of expertise, from Hollywood genres to documentary, from popular narrative to ‘art cinema’ and the avant-garde, from South America to Scandanavia – not forgetting his great love of Indian cinema. At one time or another all his enthusiasms found their way into his teaching, hugely enriching the students’ experience. Perhaps particularly notable was the way in which he made some of the most challenging of alternative forms in cinema accessible to students, encouraging them with great patience and good humour to discover the pleasures of unfamiliar worlds and ways of seeing.

Jim’s publications reflected some of this remarkable variety. He co-authored the significant Studies in Documentary in 1972 and returned to documentary in his retirement as co-author of 100 Documentary Films (2009). His monograph The New Hollywood (1993) was a major study of the changing Hollywood industry, notable for attention to television and to emergent strands of film-making by women and African Americans. Jim’s edited work included American Independent Cinema (2001) and, most significantly, two highly praised and influential volumes of selected writing from Cahiers du Cinéma in English translation. Jim very much enjoyed collaboration: in addition to the books on documentary he co-authored The Film Studies Dictionary (2001), 100 Films Noirs (2009) and 100 Film Musicals (2011). On the latter, he was determined from the outset that the book should include as many traditions of the musical as possible and it is wonderfully emblematic that in what became his final book Jim wrote about films from some fifteen countries.

For friends and colleagues an enduring image of Jim will be of him in shorts, in almost all weathers. At a time when such things were less common, he routinely cycled to and from work, and enjoyed long distance running. Jim was Head of Department from 1996-2001, but was always resolutely informal, arriving for meetings bare-legged and with his characteristic cup of herbal tea in hand. He combined passion with a gentle modesty, qualities that invited students to share his enthusiasm for cinema and encouraged their openness to new ideas. He cared about people as well as ideas, and sought the best in them.

Doug Pye (with Lib Taylor and Jonathan Bignell)

Tribute from Dr Lisa Purse

A paragraph or two seems too small a space in which to sum up my memories of Jim Hillier, his qualities and gifts. I will miss him very much.

Jim supervised my MA dissertation, and I returned to Reading for the chance to work with him again on my PhD. Supervision meetings were a genuine pleasure, and the place I learned to love (among other things) peppermint tea. A cup of peppermint tea was always offered at the start of the meeting, and a joke or anecdote shared over the process of brewing.

Jim had an easy laugh, and a warm, down to earth manner that put you at ease regardless of any concerns you might have about the quality of your latest chapter draft. Discussions were wide-ranging, exploratory, encouraging, and good humoured, and through these Jim created a space in which it felt perfectly comfortable to air anxiety or hesitation, and to test out the beginnings of ideas as much as fully formed conclusions. “Let’s try it,” he’d say, enthusiasm, trust and permission all conveyed in a simple phrase. I owe Jim a great deal, but not least is the opportunity he gave me, time and again, to pursue the uncertain inklings that would eventually evolve into the work I now call my own.

His legacy is not just his substantial contributions to film scholarship and UK film education – which others are better qualified to give account of than I – but the lives he has touched, including the many students he taught. I’m immensely grateful to have known him and studied with him. He taught me many things, but among them are these: to value dialogue, curiosity and exploration, to be confident without arrogance, to be generous as well as rigorous, to trust one’s academic instincts, and to be good humoured whenever possible.

Jim’s knowledge and love of cinema was deep and wide, but so was his generosity, kindness and modesty. Cheerfully and wonderfully unpretentious, he showed by example that taking either oneself or academia too seriously was to be avoided. Cinema and living life were the priorities. It is a good lesson.

Some comments from students taught by Jim

William Emsworth

I don’t know who to write to but I feel compelled to write something and I hope it find its way to the right home.

I’ve just heard that one of my best, most considerate and most inspiring tutors has passed away and – even 9 years after graduating – am moved to send my condolences to whomever might receive them. Jim Hillier was fantastic, so quietly intelligent and impassioned. I used to distract him at the beginning of our classes just to chat about films, going off on all sorts of tangents. He would recommend filmmakers to me that I’d never heard of and who were nowhere near the curriculum, instantly expanding my knowledge and curiosity even further. I can still remember the way his eyes lit up when I told him how I had tracked down some Hollis Frampton films in my own time, his excitement giving me all the encouragement I needed to explore further.

Jim supported me when I wanted to write my own essay question, then refused to indulge me when I got carried away trying to link Spaghetti Westerns to Indian action movies. He was both inspiring and grounding and without his enthusiasm for my enthusiasm it’s quite possible I wouldn’t have got a First, and wouldn’t have gone into the film industry, and wouldn’t now be writing from the BBC. Even after I graduated I wrote to him requesting a reference for a Masters I was applying for – he kindly obliged, then promptly talked me out of it because he knew it wasn’t where my heart lay.

I barely knew Jim, certainly not outside of university, and yet he had a profound impact on me, finding an eagerly curious mind and filling it to the brim. Most importantly, he was just a lovely, lovely man and a sad loss. I know he retired some years ago but I hope he is not forgotten with the Film, Theatre and Television department, as he will not be forgotten by this grateful student.

My deepest sympathies to all who knew him.

Adrian Garvey

I’m so sad to hear this.

I have many great memories of Jim at Reading, and have really valued his support in the years since.

He achieved so much, in his work and life, and my thoughts are with all his family and colleagues today.

Reina Loader

This is very sad news indeed. My thoughts go out to all of his friends and families. He was a great teacher and an even kinder person!

It is always difficult to know what to say when somebody passes away who has contributed a great deal to the person one is today. Jim Hillier was such a person for me during my years at university. Throughout my undergraduate degree at Reading it was very clear that I wasn’t the only person who appreciated his patient manner and kind encouragement. I remember always being able to approach him with a question or for advice even though I never had him as a personal tutor. I did however have the good fortune to have him as a lecturer and occasional seminar teacher – and without fail, I always gained a deeper and enriching understanding of film. He was one of a few lecturers who inspired me to the extent that I carried on with postgraduate studies in film. And for that, I will always be very grateful! He truly was a great teacher, but an even kinder person. He will be missed. But his memory will live on through the students he taught and inspired throughout his remarkable life and career.

Ameenah Ayub and Tim Allen

We are really, really saddened by the news and have passed this on to other alumni. Jim had so many wonderful attributes and was so passionate and brilliant about Film. We will have a good think over the weekend and send you something special. Thoughts are with you, the department and Jim’s family.

Claudia Manera

I am really sorry about the terrible news about Jim. I am not very good at saying things in these occasions, I only know that he was one of the kindest and most helpful around when I came to Reading, a long time ago.

Duncan Macmillan

I’m so sorry to hear about Jim. Jim was an enormously inspiring, knowledgeable and generous man.

Sharan Clair

It is so sad to be contacting you under such circumstances. I am sorry for the loss of such a lovely man.

Jim was the man who interviewed me for my place at Reading. I remember his huge Mother India poster that hung on his wall and I thought this guy is very cool. When I finally entered Reading to study, I was so happy to have him as my tutor. I remember him to always be kind, informative and supportive. During our tutorials he would sip peppermint tea by the litre it seemed as we discussed film, assignments and our lives. The peppermint tea is a habit I picked up and continue to this day! The last time I saw him I was not in the best place in life and I remember being ashamed to tell him I was working in a finance office. I hope he can see me now that I have changed my life. That last visit to Reading put a fire in me to pursue my passion and he was a huge part of my degree experience. I will miss him but am so glad I had the pleasure to know him.

Pass my thoughts onto his family. I know he had a young daughter and I wish her the strength to get through such a testing time. Let her know that he mattered to his students and that legacy is more than some people achieve in a lifetime.

Ashish Sawney

Walking into Jim’s room and having Waheeda Rehman (incidentally an Aunt) blooming amidst a large rose in Jim’s ‘Kagaz Ke Phool’ poster made me warm to him immediately.
As one of the earlier International students in 1988, Jim came as a revelation. He spoke to me fondly about Indian cinema, and I’d like to imagine he included a few Indian documentaries as a way to make me feel less lost.

Jim succeeded in making this form so captivating, that it is here that I make most of my films in Mumbai now.

RIP Jim and many thanks.

Jackie Downs

When I first encountered Jim Hillier I had hardly seen anything other than mainstream Hollywood films and a handful of Wajda (not that there’s anything wrong with that). By the end of my time with him I’d  watched someone spend 45 minutes baking a strudel; seen a camera lens zoom into a far wall over the course of 45 minutes accompanied by a ghastly whining soundtrack; blushed my way through Carolee Schneeman and her lover, and Stan Brakhage’s wife and her newborns. I’d seen films as short as 30 seconds and as long as three-plus hours. Films made from found footage, scratched and personalised by their makers; films where women floated on boats for hours. I’d also seen Sam Peckinpah, Claudia Weill, Sally Potter, Andy Warhol, Jonathan Demme. Jim opened my eyes to the way cinema  could work when it didn’t want to tell its stories in traditional ways, when it wanted to wear its artfulness on its sleeve.

The range of material Jim exposed his students to was legendary. He once came out of his office to beg me to stop telling innocent first years that they had Un chant d’amour (and all that that entailed) waiting for them in Year 3. But it was his excitement for the films, his passion for them, his knowledge of them and the way he encouraged us to confront such a different cinematic experience that was more legendary. And the sharing did not stop in class. He loaned me his precious VHS copy of a John Cassavetes documentary when he learned that I had seen one of his films on TV and been bewitched by it. I watched it with my mum, who knew Cassavetes only as an actor, but became fascinated with how he worked with his team (including her beloved Columbo!) during the course of watching the documentary. She’s no longer with me, but the memory of Jim’s part in one of the few cultural events my mum and I could share has never gone.

I began teaching A Level Film Studies a year after graduating, and Jim was the Chief Examiner (later becoming my centre’s moderator). As a result, he had a handle on exactly how I was doing in the classroom. We met regularly at INSET days; I tapped him for film resources and advice on whether I could really teach this film under that specification. At no point did he ever make me feel like I couldn’t do the job. He treated this rookie with the greatest professional respect, as if I was his equal. For someone who didn’t expect to do A Levels, or go to university, let alone become a lecturer, this was the greatest and most generous gift he could have given me.

The last time I saw him was at a book launch in Oxford. I spent the time before he got there looking over my shoulder for him and ran squealing towards him when he arrived. We talked and talked until he had to leave. We had the most fun of anyone there, I’ll bet.

Thanks Jim.

David Sakula

Hearing of Jim Hillier’s passing, like others, I felt inspired to put pen to paper. I didn’t know Jim personally, but, as a Film and Drama student at Bulmershe College from 1978- 81, I did know his teaching. I think Jim was the only teacher who taught me in all three years and he made a huge impact on my understanding of film form. First, it was Director in Film: when Jim spoke about Welles’s use of deep focus it was with such compassion that he made the film, and all film, seem like a form of knowledge. Later, it was avant-garde film: memories of Wavelength again, Hollis Frampton and P. Adams Sitney’s “Visionary Film”- what a wonderful course that was, taught alongside Laura Mulvey. In the third year it was Realism in Film and some wonderful seminars on Godard, Costa Gavros and one film La Cecilia, where I can still hear his articulation of an open text. Jim seemed to love film form and distilled its essence for us, his undergraduate students, to grapple with. Twenty years later I took a Master’s degree in Film Studies because I wanted to develop that special knowledge. What a wonderful teacher. Thank you, Jim.

Ameenah Ayub Allen & Tim Allen (Film & Drama 1996-1999)

We are both deeply saddened to hear the news of Jim’s passing. We both feel  incredibly lucky to have had Jim as our tutor and head of department whilst at Reading and fondly remember his great film seminars and huge wealth of knowledge. Jim was a hugely respected facilitator of discussions and independent thought amongst us but was also consistently kind, calm cheerful and considerate to his students – giving them a lot of help and support above and beyond his remit. Jim was also very modest and it was easy to take for granted his own academic and published work and the fact that he was a pioneer. Ameenah remembers visiting friends at Warwick and meeting film students who were in awe that she was taught by Jim Hillier. Tim vividly remembers his first days of university walking into Jim’s office and being struck by how cool he obviously was – with all his interesting books and posters everywhere but also how surprisingly easy it was to talk with Jim right from the start. Tim’s favourite units of study were Third Cinema and Documentary Cinema which Jim led and made more interesting because they discussed culture, ethics and politics, not just art or narrative. Ameenah thoroughly enjoyed American Cinema I & II with Jim and was really pleased to tell him that she actually now worked in the ‘movies’.  Jim you were unique, brilliant and inspiring and we will never forget you and the thinking and films you introduced us to.

Christian Gamst Miller-Harris (Screenwriter and Film & Drama graduate 2001)

Jim’s lectures and courses were inspirational to the point of frustration. I remember the debates and discussions not wanting to shut down over not wanting Jim to shut up. His insights and blending of historic facts with potent analytical power have stayed with me in the decade plus since I graduated film and drama and I often have moments of harking back to defining moments in my understanding of film from his classes. Moments where lightning struck and something essential and earth-shattering stuck.
He was a kind soul, a compassionate human being and an intellectual powerhouse with a Simon and Garfunkelesque tempo. Perhaps it sounds like an exaggeration, but to me, from my first interview to my graduation, Jim (along with two others from Reading F&D) was the person who inspired me onto the path that film should be a way of life for me – and always something more than a job.
His tone, tempo and thoughtful teaching will always be a part of me and an inspiration to my work.
Thanks for being such a progressive force of teaching Jim.
And thank you for your sartorial prowess in being the coolest “all year shorts wearer” I have ever met.
Lots of love.

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