Lost Sparrow Director Chris Billing Discusses Excavating Family Secrets

November 12, 2010 by Brooke Shelby Biggs in Interviews

Journalist and filmmaker Chris Billing talked to us 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 on PBS (check local listings).

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.
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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 the film?

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.

See more Independent Lens.

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?

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.

[UPDATE: The following question and answer were left out of the original post.]
Was your Crow siblings’ adoption part of the Indian Adoption Project, pre-Indian Child Welfare Act? Did you do any research into that when investigating your siblings’ histories?

My Crow siblings were adopted in 1971, after the Indian Adoption Project (1958-1967) ended, and before the Indian Child Welfare Act was implemented in 1978. Their adoption was administered by Montana Social Services.

My family found out about the four children (Bobby, Lana, Tyler, and Janelle) because of a crusading reporter for the Newark (NJ) Star Ledger, Vera Plumb, who was writing a series of articles at the time trying to match “hard-to-place” children with families in Northern New Jersey. Because my family had already adopted two girls, including my sister Kimmi from the Apache tribe in Pima, Arizona, Vera Plumb thought we might be a good fit for the four Crow children. Before her article spotlighting Bobby, Lana, Tyler, and Janelle was published, she called my mother and told her to look out for it. Within a year, the four children were part of our family.

Brooke Shelby Biggs