David Sutherland’s critically acclaimed documentaries are known for their depth of intimacy and long-form commitment to the filmmaking process, often taking three years or more to capture their subjects’ daily lives, and battles, in revealing detail.
Even by those standards, though, Sutherland’s latest film, “Kind Hearted Woman,” represents a milestone achievement in what he calls “cinematic portraiture.”
The five-hour film, airing in two parts on PBS April 1 and 2, focuses on Robin Charboneau, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe in North Dakota. A single mother struggling to raise her two children on the Spirit Lake Nation reservation, Charboneau faces daunting odds living in a community plagued by poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and a systemic unwillingness to address its own worst problems.
Charboneau’s path is made no easier by her own troubled childhood. From the age of 3 she was brutally assaulted by family members, then placed in a foster home at 13. Alcoholism, depression, and troubled relationships with abusive men, including her ex-husband, marked her young adulthood. The couple’s custody battles over their children — daughter Darian, now 17, and son Anthony, 14 — frame much of Sutherland’s story, which he began filming in 2008, following Charboneau as she fled the reservation and tried to establish an independent life for herself and her kids.
By 2010, Sutherland had shot 500 hours of footage. He spent another two years editing the film, his 13th in a body of work that includes “Out of Sight” (1995), “The Farmer’s Wife” (1998), “Country Boys” (2006), and biographies of artists Paul Cadmus and Jack Levine.
Sutherland, 67, who lives in Wellesley, maintains that he did not set out to make an “issues” film, but events caught up with him last October, when the US Bureau of Indian Affairs seized control of child services on the Spirit Lake reservation. The takeover follows years of complaints about mismanagement and maltreatment of tribal children. The broadcast of “Kind Hearted Woman,” a copresentation of “Frontline” and Independent Lens, is likely to intensify the spotlight on those issues. At its heart, though, is one determined and resilient woman’s journey toward healing and recovery.
Q. How did you find Robin Charboneau?
A. I’d just finished “Country Boys” and felt burned out, so I took a year off. Then I got an e-mail from Pat Harrison at Corporation for Public Broadcasting, asking what I was doing next. That got me thinking about what I’d missed in my films. In my last two, there was abuse in the background, but we never got into that. OK, I thought, I’d missed this issue. Whose portrait am I going to do next?
My first step was going back to North Dakota, where I went on tour with rural mental health groups, talking to recovering abuse victims. Let me just say, though, that I did not set out to choose a Native American woman to portray.
Q. What are your criteria for choosing a subject?
A. They have to be articulate, have a quest, a back story, and want to see [the film-making process] through. When I first met Robin, I was scared of her. She was really emotional. I liked her, though. She’s smart, articulate, a good writer. She’s also funny, even though her back story was horrible.
We stayed in touch until I narrowed my field down to five [candidates]. When I chose her, I knew she would go the distance, even though her drinking problem had come on big-time. The day I flew out to start filming, she landed in rehab. Nevertheless, I knew she’d go the distance. And, man, did she go the distance.
Q. Did you worry about her children going the distance, too?
A. Two points. One, I never dreamt — and neither did Robin — that her own daughter would be molested, too. Two, I chose Robin in part because her kids were so magical. And so outspoken. Right from the beginning, they told me if they didn’t want to be filmed.
Q. Without giving too much away, there’s a powerful scene in which Robin hears a game-changing admission by Darian that lands her ex-husband behind bars. How did you get that on film?
A. I’m a dinosaur. I do long-form documentary. When I got that bedroom scene, whether I eventually used it or not, I knew it would be years down the road before the film was finished and Darian was older. We were just there when it happened. We didn’t know she was going to talk about anything like [being molested]. The conversation just evolved. Robin doesn’t bring it up, you’ll notice. Darian does.
When I showed Darian the finished film, she felt self-conscious about that scene, but I never put pressure on her to leave it in. They could have stopped the film at the press tour. Here’s what Robin said about it: “All that time I spent with the abuse, they told me not to speak out. My kids will always speak out, though, because that’s what they’ve been taught to do.”
Q. Due to the abuse and custody issues involved, do you regard this film as your most intimate? One where your presence had more impact on your subjects’ lives than with your other films?
A. There’s no doubt that Robin’s adoptive family did not want this film made. Look, she was accused of sexually molesting her own kids. They went out of their way to hurt Robin because she was doing this film, absolutely. I was only trying to follow Robin on her quest, though. There was no intention of building a case against anyone with this film.
Bottom line is, Robin is the most flawed protagonist I’ve ever filmed. Maybe in doing these films my subjects try harder — Robin would probably agree — but I’m not telling them to try harder. It’s not a prize to be in one of my films.
Q. How’s Robin doing today?
A. Still struggling. I hope she doesn’t have more bouts of depression, but you can’t go through what she has and not have any. She’ll certainly get some speaking engagements from the film, because her insights are special. I’m sure she’ll take two steps forward. But she always seems to take one step back, too.
Helping her people and becoming a good mother is all the meaning she really has in life. When she talks about learning how to love, how to be a real mother — she didn’t know it then, but she knows it now.
Interview was condensed and edited. Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.