Filmmaker David Sutherland on Making Kind Hearted Woman

Filmmaker David Sutherland

Filmmaker David Sutherland

We sat down with acclaimed filmmaker David Sutherland to talk with him about his unforgettable portrait of Robin Charboneau, a 32-year-old divorced single mother and Oglala Sioux woman living on North Dakota’s Spirit Lake Reservation. His film, Kind Hearted Woman — a special co-presentation of FRONTLINE and Independent Lens — premieres April 1 & 2 at 10 PM (check local listings).

What led you to make this film?
I was trying to reach out to another forgotten corner of the American landscape, to put a face on a Native family so that we could see them close-up with all the detail that illuminates the rich reality of their lives.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
I talk to them in my own voice. Everyone needs to adapt their own personality and talk to everybody the way they are – from your heart. People will understand that. I came back – if I said I was going to be there and return again and again, I kept my word and I did that.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
There’s a scene with Darren (Robin’s boyfriend) lifting weights, while his narration talks about how he would love to romance Robin. In the background, a song plays in which a native man sings such lyrics as, “I am just an Indian Marlboro Man.” The scene really showed Darren’s warmth, his vanity, his romantic side and other elements of his personality.

Watch “I’ll Be Your Marlboro Man” on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
While filming, I was most moved by the scene where Robin speaks for the first time publicly about a lot of the abuse she suffered in her life and trying to heal from it. In her speech, she integrates her poetry with the horrors of her life experience, and tells the audience she’s just now learning how to love and how to be a good mother.

Robin Charboneau, the subject of Kind Hearted Woman

Robin Charboneau, the subject of Kind Hearted Woman

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
I’ve lost all my ambition. The only thing that keeps me motivated is that I love doing it. And when I stop doing it, I miss it.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Public media has embraced me, represents what I stand for, and has given me several opportunities in my career. Public television has always presented my work in a way which is meaningful and hit an audience that responded to it.

What are your three favorite films?
Raging Bull, Red Rock West, and No Country for Old Men.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Many people tell you that it’s impossible and that it’s an impractical dream. I think that may be true, but it you really want to do it, you can do it.

Watch David Sutherland, Filmmaker on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Visit the Independent Lens and FRONTLINE Kind Hearted Woman websites for more information about the film, resources for victims of abuse, and related news stories.

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  • Eva Chavarria Hunter

    I am drawn to this story but at the same time depresses and saddens me to no end to watch how Robin’s life is so affected by the Indian tribal ties filled with some of the most dysfunctional aspects of her life. The abuse and stigma of living with it from generation to generation almost defines her life on a daily basis. I can see why so many Indians could be so affected by it using alcohol and drugs to overcome their childhood abuse. To see how it follows them doesn’t bring out the best in them either especially coming from the professional help Robin receives. There is a part of her help that posts fault on her own children and her foster daughter which I didn’t find very reassuring. Her treatment is not so positive as it troubles me to see how it affects her love ones. This comes from the first part of the program yet hopeful that the second part may show Robin and her life in a better light.

  • PearlM

    I was quite depressed after watching this show. I had to TIVO it because it aired when I was busy with something else. Perhaps when I watch the second show in the series, I will feel better about life for people from Spirit Lake.

  • facebook-568156876

    The relationship between Robin and Darren typifies the transient childhood game of tag. I wasn’t sure whether Robin was shy around him because of the cameras or if she was able to disconnect in the manner that’s typical of a person abused in childhood. We don’t know Darren’s story by I do reckon what I reckon: child advocate, muscle guy, afraid of being left by a woman.

    Profoundly unfair to Robin were the two agencies she worked for which allowed her to conduct speaking engagements. She was paid on a grant likely very inexpensively to be the speaker/advocate/consultant. And without any guidance in public speaking or developing an organizational plan to cover topics beyond “personal story” she went out and spoke and then of course slowly the message of unprofessionalism came back and she was sacked. Of course, the nervous meltdown … Robin needs to sue. Otherwise, how polite of these agencies to fulfill their rolls in public housing (securing the subsidized duplex; the whole message ‘I/we are here for you’ has federal dollar signs hanging all over that tongue) and then how transient the big brother ended up being for Anthony.

    A profoundly uncomfortable personal story is a true story.

    Sutherland captures all of this.

    About the sound though: at times the documentary sounds the way a foreign film will sound. Some sounds were added after the fact as the sounds are clearly dubbed in or the sounds come off this way because of the distance of the shot.

  • ed

    tough strong woman. great mom. definitely keeping it real