By Diane Miller
Seventeen million viewers watched David Sutherland’s 1998 TV series “The Farmer’s Wife” within three days of its initial release. The story, which depicts a troubled Nebraskan family at risk of losing its farm, hit home with audiences so poignantly, it didn’t matter people’s backgrounds. Spectators from all walks of life found themselves rooting for the show’s protagonists.
The filmmaker’s latest, “Kind Hearted Woman,” which airs April 1 and 2 on Prairie Public Television, also takes on rural America, specifically North Dakota’s Spirit Lake Reservation, where abuse and neglect against women and children is rampant.
The two-part TV series follows Robin Charboneau, a divorced, single mother, who, more than anything, wants to provide a good life for her children, Darian and Anthony. She also dreams of finding new love and becoming a social worker to help other abused women live better lives.
She, however, must combat a number of setbacks, including her history of alcoholism, unhealed wounds from childhood sexual abuse, and a grueling court battle with her ex-husband, who, despite having sexually abused Darian, still has joint custody over the kids.
When Sutherland came to North Dakota searching for his lead role, he specifically wanted a woman who was “willing to go the distance” to resolve her issues.
Initially, he was hoping for someone non-Native.
“My thought was, middle-aged white men have caused Natives enough trouble historically … they don’t need me,” he said.
Something about Charboneau changed Sutherland’s mind.
“There was this one woman who wasn’t quite recovered, totally articulate, very interesting,” he said. “She was charming, nice, and very smart and very open, said she would consider doing it.”
Though this film has the capacity to bring awareness to a major social issue, Sutherland does not see himself as an investigative reporter by any means. His films are not meant to have any political or social agenda; instead, they are meant to “put a face on something.”
“My films are very close up. It’s the way that I microphone people … It’s this close up of like being there or eavesdropping,” he said. “Basically, you go through their experience with them.”
Sutherland’s talent allows him to capture extraordinary, heartrending portraits of people and families. As viewers, we cheer for the characters on the screen. We fall in love with their kindness, spirit, weakness, passion and personality. We want to see them progress. If they don’t, we empathize.
“I think most people will like the show, because they will like (the family),” Sutherland said. “They are very loveable. I mean that, deeply.”
Stopping the violence
Whether he meant to or not, Sutherland’s film may (in part) be responsible for new efforts to halt the violence against Native women in North Dakota.
Last October, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, after receiving pressure from North Dakota lawmakers, took over child protection services at Spirit Lake Reservation. Educational programs on reporting, preventing and detecting signs of abuse are being made available. Representatives of the BIA also said many previously overlooked cases of abuse and neglect are now being investigated.
However, many say no changes have occured since the BIA’s takeover. According to Frontline, “... people familiar with events at Spirit Lake continue to report allegations of abuse that have gone uninvestigated and foster parents fighting to keep their children from being returned to their alleged abusers.”
According to the American Bar Association, (1) “Native Americans are victims of rape or sexual assault at more than double the rate of other racial groups.” (2) “For Native American victims of violence, the offender was slightly more likely to be a stranger than an intimate partner, family member or acquaintance.” (3) “Native Americans described the offender as an acquaintance in 34% of rapes/sexual assaults, and as an intimate partner or family member in 25% of sexual assaults.”
On April 4, Minnesota State University Moorhead is hosting a panel discussion about the film at King Hall from 7 to 8:30 p.m. The goal is to carry on conversations and actions concerning sexual abuse and domestic violence prevention and awareness. Panelists include YWCA shelter services director Angela McKibben, MSUM vice president of student affairs Donna Brown, Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition consultant Lillian Jones, and Rape and Abuse Crisis Center education coordinator Daria Odegaard.
“We live in a society in which the existence of domestic and sexual violence is the norm, not the exception,” Odegaard wrote in an email. “We need to begin talking about these issues, what they are, what the root causes are, and how to prevent them. Further, we need to discuss these issues to help victims understand and know that they are not alone; there are people who care and want to help.”
Charboneau and her daughter, since the show ended, hope to continue helping abused women and children in any way they can.
“Robin wanted to become a really good mother, she wanted to help her people, which is the reason she did it,” Sutherland said. “Now, Darian, her daughter who is now 17, wants to be an advocate for battered young woman. So who ever knew that it would turn into this.”
WHEN TO WATCH:
WHAT: “Kind Hearted Woman”
WHERE: Prairie Public Television, channel 13
WHEN: Mon & Tues, April 1 & 2; 8 p.m.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: “Kind Hearted Woman” Panel Discussion
WHERE: MSUM, King Hall, Room 110
WHEN: Thurs, April 4: refreshments and resource fair at 6:30-7 p.m.; panel discussion at 7-8:30 p.m.
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