Filmmaker David Sutherland insists that he’s a portraitist, not a journalist, but in its intimate focus his work tends to reveal profound realities about poverty in rural regions of the United States. His 1998 “Frontline” documentary “The Farmer’s Wife” examined the looming extinction of the family farm by way of the tough times and troubled marriage of a young couple trying to maintain their own small holding in Nebraska, attracting an audience of millions with its gripping domestic dramas. 2006’s “Country Boys” followed a pair of teenage boys coming of age in eastern Kentucky, illuminating the many challenges facing the two subjects as they vowed to seek better futures for themselves than the hardship-filled actualities from which they came.
Sutherland’s latest film is “Kind Hearted Woman,” which is airing on two parts on PBS, presented by “Frontline” in partnership with “Independent Lens.” The first half was broadcast last night, April 1st, and can now be streamed online, while the second premieres tonight, April 2nd, at 9pm. Like the two works mentioned above, “Kind Hearted Woman” is a long documentary, running in total five hours and spanning years in the life of Robin Charboneau, a divorced Oglala Sioux mother of two trying to find footing for herself and her family after a lifetime of abuse, alcoholism and financial distress. When the film begins, Charboneau is trudging through the snow on the side of a road in the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota where she lives, fresh from rehab. Her kids, the almost teenage Darien and the younger Anthony, are living with their father and, though they love their mother, choose to stay with him when she moves away to Fargo to escape the temptations to backslide at the rez.
“Kind Hearted Woman” is a translation of Robin’s Native American name, but it also recalls the title of a Robert Johnson song — and Robin seems like someone who understands the blues. Taken from her alcoholic mother at a young age and put into foster care, she was repeatedly raped and molested growing up. The man she married was also abusive, and she’s struggled with drinking herself. But Robin methodically perseveres through endless setbacks and situations that seem heavy and hopeless, including Darien’s reveal that her father, Robin’s ex, had molested her. The court case that follows becomes one of the film’s dramatic centers, but also reveals the incredible complexity of the situation, because so bad had it gotten when Robin was drinking that Darien would still choose to stay with her father, permitting he leave her alone.
“Kind Hearted Woman” is patient in its observations, and has the time to let them unfold, which is why its reveals about how cyclical abuse and addiction can be are so powerful — Robin has to earn back the trust of her children, and has to face a tendency of victims of abuse to take blame on themselves. It’s a battle she’s overcome but that still has to be fought by her cousin and former foster child, who too was molested by Robin’s ex, and by Darien. Shame is another part of the struggle, as the accused’s family seem more worried about what people will think of the case than the terrible wrongs inflicted on two children.
Like the recent “The Invisible War” and “Mea Maxima Culpa,” the film also provides an example of the failures of closed groups to regulate themselves, particularly in cases of sexual assault. Despite Robin’s ex-husband getting convicted for molesting two girls, one his own daughter, he retained shared custody of the kids, and Robin tries unsuccessfully to change this in a tribal court system in which those making the decisions are frequently related to or friends with the plaintiffs and defendants. (On its website, Frontline has chronicled a story related to but taking place outside the film in which reports of child abuse cases being covered up on the Spirit Lake Reservation led to the tribe’s social services agency being taken over by the Bureau of Indian Affairs last fall.)
Robin’s misfortunes and afflictions aren’t unique to the Native American community, but are more common (to an alarming degree) within it, and “Kind Hearted Woman” presents how complicated a role Robin’s culture plays in her existence — it’s something from which she draws strength and identity, but its also something, in the form of the reservation, she has to leave in order to maintain her sobriety, to study and to find work, as much as that means taking her kids away from everything they knew. Her path is very rocky, and she’s a highly imperfect heroine, but there’s a quiet, stunning nobility to her endurance, to her devotion to her children and to the way she’s embraced the power of telling her story, both in person and in opening her life to Sutherland’s cameras.