Like so many personal documentaries, Lost Sparrow begins with a family’s home video. However, the faces in the family portrait revealed therein are blurred and unidentified. Lost. Given that half the faces in the lost image belong to Native American children, my mind bends to spirits, to the oft-mythed legend of the ability of photographs to capture a soul, or, in this case perhaps, to cage it.
Director (editor, writer, everyman and, most importantly, “brother” and “son”) Chris Billing takes the audience on the most personal of journeys to discover just why his adoptive brothers Tyler and Bobby Billing died. Hit by a freight train, they were killed just over thirty years ago. Why were they lying on the train tracks? Why did they run away from home? And why didn’t they move?
These questions “Why?” initiate a series of devastating answers that lead only to more questions and heavy hearts.
How did these Crow Indian kids come to live with them anyway – in New Jersey?
And so it begins. With alcohol. With welfare. With violence, poverty and neglect. And so four Crow children came to be adopted by a couple who had another six in the house already – four biological and two other adoptees (including one Apache) who, together, formed a family balanced by five Caucasian kids and five Indian children. A truly racially integrated unit. But the adoptive family, despite a 13,000-square-foot house and hundreds of acres of farmland, had problems of its own – infidelity, anger… and secrets best left to the documentary to deliver as it unwinds and, in doing so, wrestles with issues of reconciliation and forgiveness, of faith, and of “family” in the philosophical sense.
Billing is not satisfied with just exploring the story that grew up around him, however, and by speaking directly to the Crow Indian tribal members who toughed it out around their children’s adoption by white families, raises questions of theft. Should these kids, despite the concerns over the chaos into which they were being introduced to the world, have been removed from their homes? Forced to forsake their right to an upbringing within their ancestral community? Should they have been left with their tribe regardless of the neglect they faced originally? Once the threats had passed, should they – could they – have been returned?
Billing provides more observations and talking points than judgments or answers in his feature. Made with the help of the International Documentary Association, Billing’s work wanders simply and straightforwardly into the midst of the documentary discipline. Aiming for sincerity over animation, and utilizing the subtle pan-fluted tones to symbolize both native history and organized religion, Billing is one to watch. At a time when some moviemakers are making a name for themselves by inserting their persona and bias into their material, Billing’s work is a welcome return to the non-fiction auteur as observer, even if those on whom he’s focused his examining lens are his closest family.