There was a third documentary, about birdsongs, showing Tuesday night at the American Indian Film Festival, but the truth is that “Lost Sparrow,” which preceded it, was so wrenching, so powerful that we couldn’t help rushing out instead to talk over what we had just seen. As the lights came up for a Q&A with writer-director Chris Billing, the emcee uttered one word: “Wow.”
Billing was born into what seemed to be a model family, devout, multiethnic, prospering; his father was a real estate developer. The 10 children included adoptees: four Crow siblings, two boys and two girls, who’d come from a broken and violent home on a Montana reservation. In 1978, seven years after they became part of the Billing family, the boys, early adolescents, disappeared one night and were hit and killed by a freight train the next morning. They were buried nearby.
Their deaths, still shocking in the memory of those living in the community at the time, were never explained. Thirty years later, Billing uses a cross-country journey to re-bury his brothers where they were born, on the Crow reservation, as backdrop for unraveling the story of how and why they left their adoptive family. The movie is about families and betrayal, and whether forgiveness is possible. And it stunned the audience. The documentarian is also a newsman, and was NBC bureau chief in China for five years. “Lost Sparrow” is making its way around the film festival circuit, and Billing is also talking with networks about broadcasting options.