Area filmmaker highlights Black artists
Cintia Cabib, 59, an independent documentary filmmaker who lives in Potomac, Maryland, has directed eight projects, including short films about immigration, a historic carousel, juggling and the community gardens of Washington, D.C.
Her latest film, called “Kindred Spirits: Artists Hilda Wilkinson Brown and Lilian Thomas Burwell,” profiles two Black artists who worked in D.C. when it was strictly segregated. Released last summer, the film is scheduled to air on all PBS member stations on February 4.
Cabib’s family history reads a bit like a documentary script, too.
In 1967, when Cabib was six years old, her family fled dictatorship in Argentina. Cabib, her two sisters and her parents came to the U.S. so that her father, a biochemist, could work at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.
Fleeing a country was not a new experience for her father, who escaped his homeland, Italy, during World War II. Because he was Jewish, her father, then 16, could no longer attend public school after anti-Jewish laws were enacted in Italy in 1938.
The family’s decision to leave was as difficult as the months-long journey itself. “There were no passenger ships leaving from Italy, so my father, together with his parents and two sisters, took a train to Spain,” Cabib said.
In Spain, her father’s family boarded a ship, which reached safety in South America nearly a month later.
Inspired by other filmmakers
Cabib studied international relations at Goucher College and received a graduate degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Florida.
Based on her family’s experience, Cabib, who speaks Spanish and Italian, initially planned to work on immigration and refugee issues. “With my background…I thought that that was where I was headed,” Cabib said.
But she changed her mind when a PBS film caught her eye. “I was watching a documentary on television one night, and I thought it would be really interesting to produce documentaries,” she said.
So, Cabib enrolled in producing and editing classes at Montgomery Community Television (MCT) in Rockville — and found her niche. “I really just enjoyed the entire process of [making a documentary] and having a finished product at the end,” she said.
Cabib was later hired as a teaching assistant at MCT and spent 19 years there in positions ranging from full-time instructor to training director.
In 1991, her first year there, she released her first film, a 28-minute documentary. In “Here to Stay: Young Immigrants from El Salvador,” she profiled youngsters who came to the D.C. area after experiencing the trauma of a civil war.
Cabib said she focused “on the social workers and the counselors and the teachers who worked with them and who were trying to help them as they faced the challenges of living in this country — many of them alone.”
As an immigrant herself, Cabib could relate to their stories. “Even though I didn’t experience what they experienced when they came to this country…I did feel empathetic to their struggles,” she said.
“As a filmmaker, I’m able to step into somebody else’s world and learn more about it,” Cabib said, “and meet people that I otherwise wouldn’t have met.”
Unsung D.C. heroines
Cabib came across the idea for “Kindred Spirits” in 2014, when she attended a conference at the Historical Society of Washington.
“On the brochure was this really beautiful painting of a street scene in Washington, D.C…The artist was Hilda Wilkinson Brown, and I had never heard of her before,” she said.
Born in 1894, Brown managed to succeed as an artist despite the discrimination of the times. Her work is now part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection.
When Cabib began researching Brown, who died in 1981, she discovered that her niece, Lilian Thomas Burwell, was still living. Cabib was able to interview Burwell, herself a sculptor and painter, at her home and studio in Highland Beach, Maryland.
Now 93 years old, Burwell talks in the film about her close relationship with her aunt Hilda, who convinced Burwell’s parents to send her to art school, Cabib said.
“And so, what started off being a documentary I thought I would do of Hilda Wilkinson Brown really became a documentary about both of them.”
Cabib’s film also focuses on the historic LeDroit Park neighborhood of northwest D.C., where many accomplished African Americans lived, and which was an inspiration for many of Brown’s paintings, including the one Cabib first glimpsed.
“Kindred Spirits” was already in production when the pandemic hit, so Cabib was able to release the film last year. Many of the film’s screenings took place at virtual film festivals.
Cabib hopes to start on her next project after the world returns to normal. But the need for funding is one of the biggest challenges she and other independent filmmakers face.
“There’s just not enough funding in this country for these types of artistic pursuits,” she said. “There is some, but not enough.”
“Kindred Spirits: Artists Hilda Wilkinson Brown and Lilian Thomas Burwell” premiered last July on WHUT, the local PBS station. It will air again on Thursday, Feb. 4 on WHUT at 9:30 p.m. and on Maryland Public Television at 10:30 p.m. It is available to stream online until March 3.
More information about Cabib’s film can be found at kindredspiritsfilm.com.
To purchase Cabib’s previous films, visit cintiacabib.com.