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Tufts alum Sutherland discusses new documentary about abuse

Published: Thursday, February 13, 2014

Updated: Thursday, February 13, 2014 03:02


Courtesy David Sutherland Productions

The Communication and Media Studies (CMS) program welcomed acclaimed documentary filmmaker David Sutherland (A ‘67) to Tufts for a showing and discussion on his most recent film, “Kind Hearted Woman” (2013).

According to Sutherland, many of his movies, including “The Farmer’s Wife” (1998) and “Country Boys” (2005), focus on the everyday struggles of ordinary people. His newest movie, a portrait of an abused Native American woman, is no exception.

Before the showing of his movie, Sutherland told the Daily that he set out to make a film about abuse because it had occurred in the background of his earlier films, but he had never truly captured it.

“I wanted to do something about abuse and molestation, but particularly abuse because I hadn’t,” Sutherland said. “It was in the backdrop of my last two big films ... but I never caught it. I wasn’t trying to catch it.”

He explained that he visited North Dakota during a press tour for his previous film, where it was received successfully. He contacted a rural poverty group in the state and asked if they had any women recovering from abuse.

“I went there to a group,” Sutherland said. “They gave me the descriptions of the different women [they were] covering and they told me who they were. Most of them were white. There were some natives, and I immediately said, ‘I don’t want to do natives because look at all these white men and what they’ve done to natives historically in the U.S.’”

However, Sutherland explained that part of his filmmaking process involves adapting the narrative to what he finds.

“I went back there thinking I was going to do a film about abuse, but it was too on the money,” he said. “The issues come out of the people.”

According to Sutherland, one of the women he interviewed was particularly interesting and he asked if he could speak to her more extensively. He said he was unaware that she was Native American until she invited him to her reservation.

“I’m a portraitist so ... I went up there, I interviewed her and then I thought ... does anyone really know a native woman?” Sutherland said. “You might in college, you might have someone in our class, but do you know a native family really up close? There are shows like ‘Independent Lens’ that might have introduced a native woman, but more often than not, you saw a chief or someone like that.”

Sutherland then decided that a Native American would be the best subject for his film and chose to make his documentary about Robin Charboneau, a divorced single mother and Oglala Sioux woman who lives on Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota.

The film shows Charboneau as she conquers alcohol addiction that followed her spousal abuse. Throughout the movie, which is divided into two parts and is five hours in length, she must remain sober while going back to school, working multiple jobs and raising her two children.

She is continuously in tribal court, fighting her ex-husband for custody and accusing him of sexually abusing her daughter, while she too must fight accusations of abuse.

“My subjects are never perfect — they are always damaged, damaged by what has happened to them or they’re trying to survive,” Sutherland said. “I wanted to put a face on where you root for them.”

He explained that while exposing problems of abuse and alcoholism on reservations, the film also revealed major issues with the United States’ tribal court system. Sutherland said that he did not set out to produce an investigative piece.

“I’m not an investigative reporter,” Sutherland said. “I just want to get a likeness and get a portrait, but I became an investigative reporter because the story caught up with her tribe ... it was an unfamiliar role to all of a sudden be breaking a story.”

After the film, audience members were invited to ask Sutherland about the documentary-making process. One question addressed how he, as a filmmaker, connects personally with his subjects.

“The best way to say it is you start to become invisible to them,” he said. “I’m very clinical. When I’m out shooting, I’m saying I have to bring it home to my editors. I’m very good at separating myself.”

However, Sutherland noted that this film was different than his previous ones because he has become more emotional and, in fact, ruined a scene.

“As I’ve gotten older, I can say I’ve become more cantankerous, more grumpy,” he said. “I’m also in some ways more emotional ... I ruined a scene because I started to cry because of what she was saying to me.”

John Ciampa, the CMS program administrator, explained that Tufts was fortunate to bring Sutherland to campus to speak about the documentary-making process to students studying film.

“We have a really vibrant film studies [program] and a number of the classes focus on the documentary form,” Ciampa said. “Having an alum like David come to campus who is at the top of that field — he’s done extraordinary work. I think bringing him to campus to not only view his work, but then discuss the filmmaking process with him is just an extraordinary benefit ... We feel really fortunate.”

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