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Independent Lens: Q&A with Lost Sparrow Filmmaker Chris Billing

By Michelle Michalos
Monday, November 15th, 2010
  • comments (13)

Journalist and filmmaker Chris Billing recently talked to Independent Lens about making Lost Sparrow, a deeply personal film about the secrets that killed his brothers and tore his family apart. The film premieres on Independent Lens on Tuesday, November 16 at 10 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Interview courtesy of Independent Lens. For more interviews and other Independent Lens film content, visit their blog.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

Lost Sparrow is an intensely personal film. I document an extremely dark period in my family’s history. However, I felt that people could identify with the things that we as a family experienced, and that the film could be a source of comfort and encouragement for many. It was that hope that drove me to finish what was often an emotionally draining pursuit.

What led you to make this film?

Ever since my two brothers were killed in 1978, I’ve been riddled with questions about the tragedy. I couldn’t understand why Bobby and Tyler had run away from our elegant home in upstate New York. And how did they end up on railroad tracks? I found the official explanation – that they had fallen asleep on the tracks – unconvincing. So I decided to conduct my own investigation. Three years later, Lost Sparrow is the result.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making Lost Sparrow?

Because Lost Sparrow is so personal for me, I often felt pulled in two different directions. On the one hand, I’m a filmmaker and journalist reporting events that happened three decades ago. But on the other hand, I’m the brother of two boys who were tragically killed. It was not possible for me to be dispassionate about that. The biggest challenge for me in making Lost Sparrow was telling the story objectively, while at the same time expressing the emotions I was feeling as the investigation unfolds.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

Most of the people who appear in Lost Sparrow are related to me, either biologically or through adoption. My immediate family, of course, innately trusted me, and, for the most part, supported what I was doing. Three of my siblings, however, declined to participate in the film – primarily, I think, because they didn’t want to dwell on the most tragic event in my family’s history.

My sisters Lana and Janelle, who were adopted from the Crow reservation in Montana, returned there with me and my crew when we filmed there. They opened doors for us that would not have been opened without them.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

My two Directors of Photography, Michael Rogers and Ken Chalk, are gifted cinematographers, and they shot stunning footage of beautiful landscapes on the Crow reservation. I would have loved to use that material. But I couldn’t find a way to fit it in while still propelling the story forward. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to use it in future projects.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

Even after scores of screenings, there are still scenes in Lost Sparrow that I love to watch. I especially like the home movies that show my siblings and me playing together as children. Thanks to my mother and grandfather, we have reels and reels of old Super 8mm film. It’s especially poignant to watch footage of Bobby and Tyler as children. The boys seemed so full of life, and they had such great potential. It’s tragic that they didn’t have an opportunity to grow into adulthood.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

Viewing Lost Sparrow has proven to be an emotionally charged experience for a lot of people. Native Americans in particularly have react strongly to the film. So many of the issues raised in Lost Sparrow – interracial adoption, domestic violence, substance abuse, etc. – resonate in a personal way with Native audiences. And the film addresses these issues in a raw and unvarnished way. It has been helpful to have a discussion time after the film to give people a chance to process what they’ve seen.

Most viewers have given me and my family credit for having the courage to tell such a difficult story. They recognize that it’s an important story told in a sensitive way. I have been touched by the many expressions of gratitude that I’ve received following. Screenings.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

Basically, it’s the stories. There are so many good stories to be told, and documentary film is a great medium to tell them. I’m energized by the whole process – conducting interviews, shooting b-roll, editing. I’m constantly on the lookout for new and poignant stories to tell.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

Despite a vast media landscape with hundreds of channels up and down the dial, there are relatively few broadcast options for independent documentaries. PBS is the gold standard. To be honest, it’s not a question of me choosing public television. The truth is, I’m delighted and grateful that Independent Lens selected Lost Sparrow for PBS broadcast.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

During some of the more intense periods of filming and editing, I felt as if I put my entire life on hold. But I always tried to balance work with recreation, especially considering that the subject matter of the film is so personal and intimate. I needed time away from it. So, when I needed a break, I made a point of escaping to the gym or the tennis court.

What are your three favorite films?

The Shawshank Redemption
Pulp Fiction
Groundhog Day

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

My only advice would be, find a good story to tell and then go for it. You can always find an audience for a good story.

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film? (This question is meant literally.)

Chocolate-covered almonds.

What has happened to some of the people who appeared in your film?

Things haven’t changed much for my family since filming ended. My sister Lana still lives in North Carolina, in a less-than-ideal situation. The rest of my family for the most part lives in New Jersey. There really isn’t that much communication.

I certainly have a stronger relationship with Lana that I did before filming started. And that is one positive outcome of the film. Of course, difficult issues are raised in Lost Sparrow, and there are no easy answers. But the truth is that making the film didn’t do much to bind the family together or heal old wounds.

  • Pearl

    Why isn’t the father in jail for what he did? He devastated the innocence of a precious young girl and ruined her life. It is a form of murder what he did. How can he be so smug?

  • Linda Fisher

    Beautifully crafted film, but completely without a moral, or legal, compass. This father committed a Crime! A crime that should have been punishable with a prison sentence and he should be listed as a child molestor and predator, right now, no matter how old he is or where he is. What happened is not a family matter – it is a crime of the vilest sort. The father’s rambling was the type of dissembling common in criminals. As long as families consider incest and child sexual molestation a private family matter it will continue. It is a crime and the victims, as well as others in the family that are aware of the crime need to go to the authorities. This film only illustrates, to my horror, that the old “private family issue” attitude still exists; even in an educated, experienced journalist. When you realized, when you were in college, that something had been “going on” you should have had your father arrested – that might have salvaged something that may have been left of your sister’s self-esteem.

  • Pearl

    I agree with Linda Fisher’s comments. The father should be a registered sex offender and wherever he currently lives, his neighbors should be notified that there is a child molester living in the neighborhood. This documentary covers the family’s tragedy and shows in Lana, the life-long consequences for the victims of pedophile. It does not seek justice for Lana in the legal and emotional ways that morality dictates. This secret has been shrouded for 30 years. I wonder how many others he molested who never had the courage to tell.

  • maureen

    the mother, and the biological father should have been punished too! The mother let it happen, she knew about it! The biological father is to blame as well, he failed those children just as much as the adopted dad did.

  • Dave

    Where exactly does the pedophile live? He needs to be put on a register. The movie doesnt make sense because he is not in prison. It is not a family secret, it is a crime and he is a danger to the community and people who are near him. I dont know what they never make that clear in the movie. They do not even use the word pedophile! but that is what it is. The perp needs to go to prison. The movie was presented the wrong way.

  • Indian woman….

    To Maureen…….you have no idea what life is like on an Indian reservation. When you’ve seen the way life is, and understand living situations, you would realize that back then, Indians were treated more like animals then human beings. The biological father’s life wasn’t ideal for the four children, but the Social Workers never thought of other family members that could’ve taken the four kids. When you’ve lived among the “people” you see things in a totally different view. It’s not something you can explain to someone, it’s something you have to experience in order to understand. No excuses being made, just realize life was-back then-so different for Indians. Even today, my husband and I experience racism when shopping in big cities neighboring the reservation. We won’t get waited on or the empoloyees follow closely behind watching in case we shoplift. Some times we are flat out ignored, even standing at the check out counter with items to purchase, we are ignored. Don’t get me wrong, things have progressed over the years, but you still see it. My husband and I have decent jobs, and are able to live a comfortable life. I have worked the same job at a federal facility for over 15 years. My husband has worked for the same company for 28 years, but believe me when I say we see have had our share of “rough” times, but have been very lucky to over come and live a clean-sober life. Many of our family members haven’t been so lucky. The four children were placed by the “socail service” to live a better life, that didn’t happen for them. There are so many people that could be blamed…….. think about it. I do agree, the adopted father should be punished. The rest of the people involved……….that’s another story.

  • Zac

    The adoptive father should be prosecuted for his crimes if the statute of limitations has not expired. His assets should be seized and used to rehabilitate and compensate his victim.

  • Virginia Petersen

    The purpose of the film is lost in the comments about the father being prosecuted. The statute of limitations has probably run out after all these years, and like Lana said- he has already suffered and been punished. The question that needs to be asked is if he abused any other kids and how recently they occurred.
    I thought the film was wonderful and was worth it if Lana felt better after the apology. No one can understand what it feels like to live in your skin after hurting a child, unless you have been there, and how much courage it takes to apologize. No, I am not an abuser, but have been abused and know the hell of both sides.

  • James(Native Canadian)

    Very powerfully moving for me, I cried and was inraged here there throught this documentry film. The participents and the family and to Chris Billing are very brave and courageious for letting the truth be known. The truth always hurts. First the truth, and know may there be healing from all the families involved. This moment in time needs to be told and understood at all sides.I thank every one involed in making this film. Me and my sibbling where adopted to a native family on our reserve three of us. But it was the church and its priest that destroyed us, I am a servivor. I do not wish to say to much, but I will say I been to hell and back. I know the hoplessness the extreme fear, the pain, the suffering, the magnetude of inoccent lives lost and destroyed. Lana forgaveness was painfully courageious. As for the adoptive father hopfully the law will catch up soon

  • Jeanne

    I commend you for making this sensitive documentary. My heart cries out for these children–all of them. Lana’s face as a very young girl haunts me, and I think about how precious each child on this earth is. All children deserve to be safe and protected. Each one is a gift, and yet this innocent child was damaged at the hands of an indifferent sex abuser. What really happened to those two young boys who tried desperately to help their sister, a prisoner of abuse (she still lives as a prisoner)? The idea of the “dad” in this film, as Lana referred to him as, calling up King David in the Bible, comparing his sin to King David’s was nauseating. Adult consensual sex is one thing; abuse of a small, trusting child is quite another. This sin will not go unpunished. Can anything be done to assist Lana in her current situation? Is there a fund set up somewhere whereby individuals can send support of some kind? I know the WHOLE family was affected. Again, a brave film. Heartbreaking, but very brave.

  • Cotti Turnbo

    Dear Chris, Lana, & family,
    This is one of the best fims I have ever seen. Your entire family was so brave to be so honsest. I was deeply touched by Lana and her story. I was glued to the TV having been through something similar.

    Thank you so much for making this film. Many can be and have been enlightened by your incredible film. You are quite a wonderful film maker. Again, Thank you from the depth of my heart and soul.
    Ms. Cotti Turnbo

  • Adonis

    Can someone please tell me how this film ended. My DVR shut off with one minute left. I saw the father drive up with the intention of apologizing to Lana and there my DVR shut off. Thanks in advance for any responses.

  • Jeanne

    Let us not forget Lana or her siblings, PLEASE?

    These children deserved nothing but PROTECTION and SAFETY! What can we do to help Lana’s situation? Is she surviving? Please, can someone help?