Behind the Doc Lens

Season 1: Blog 10– “Kind Hearted Woman” Q&A Interview with Filmmaker David Sutherland By Lauren Brody

Trailer of “Kind Hearted Woman”

Kind Hearted Woman features an intimate portrait of Robin, a native woman struggling to remain sober on the Dakota reservation as she comes to terms with her childhood of sexual abuse. The film profiles how Robin battles through the challenges of keeping her family together and how she is able to make peace with her life.

Q1: You prefer the title of “portraitist” to documentary filmmaker. Discuss your style of filmmaking.
A1: For me, making a film is all consuming. The last three films have taken nineteen years of my life. I want watching the film to feel like you are living in the subject’s skin. I don’t want anyone perfect—I want three dimensional characters. I can’t make films that are 1 ½ hours because you have to watch the subjects change. If the audience worries about the subjects then the issues raised in the film becomes more relevant in their lives. I also never do a film about straight issues—the issues come out of the people.

Q2: How did you find Robin and her family?
A2: For this film, I wanted to feature issues of abuse. Abuse was in the background of The Farmer’s Wife and Country Boys, but I was never there when it happened and able to capture it on film. I also wanted to film in North Dakota where I had done public service work for rural poverty after The Farmer’s Wife, which was so popular there. For Kind Hearted Woman, I reached out to poverty groups I knew to find subjects for this film. So, I went to meetings for early recovery for women who had suffered abuse.

At that time, I was not interested in focusing on a native woman per se; I was just looking for an articulate woman. I knew there were a few native women in this group, but I wasn’t initially interested in that because historically white men have caused natives so much trouble. However, when one of the native woman spoke, she was very compelling. I then decided that as a portraitist, I wanted to put a face on a native woman and her family on a quest and look at them as a family that just happens to be native. I knew that these issues would come out about abuse, rural poverty and native ways—but I needed a subject who was willing to go the distance and someone who knew what they were getting into by making a film with me.

Through various abuse recovery groups on reservations in North Dakota, word got out about my search. I would meet with women recovering from abuse for 3-5 meetings a day looking for the right subject. People would connect me with other potential subjects. Finally, I ended up at Spirit Lake meeting Robin.

After a year of searching, there were five final people who I was interested in. I revisited with Robin as we had stayed in touch over the year. I asked Robin if she could go the distance and commit to making this film with me. Robin sought out a medicine man and after speaking with him, decided that she would like to be the subject of my film. At that time, I had no sense about the upcoming custody battle for Robin’s kids and the ultimate abuse her daughter would suffer.

Q3: Talk about your process as a “portraitist.”
A3: I was dyslexic growing up which has a lot to do with how I speak and think. I wanted to be a painter like my sister who taught me to read, but unfortunately, I can’t draw. I wanted to capture a likeness in film—I wanted to make films that were accurate portraits of people. Do I capture all of the moods? Is it emotional? Is it funny? I move into my subject’s house. I want to get all of that emotion. Robin was always making herself laugh and I wanted to make sure all of the sides of her personality were coming through. I wanted to show her making those hard decisions so the audience believed her. The audience can feel alienated because they don’t know the subject up close. I always worry that I’m not giving a full enough portrait.

Q4: Robin states that she is “not afraid of anything that comes my way.” Was that always the case?
A4: When I first met Robin, I was afraid of her. She was just beginning to deal with the abuse she suffered growing up, and there was not a lot of support for her at the reservation. Robin was really emotional and couldn’t stop crying. The first time we met, Robin was articulate but out of control.

Robin evolved as an orator and is now speaking around the country. When we were doing the press tour, I was so impressed by how much she had grown and how she was able to use such choice words to convey her journey and what she had been through. I realize that she has become a great mother and woman.

Q5: Can you discuss the role of Dakota heritage in Robin’s struggle?
A5: On some reservations in North Dakota, native women are 2.5 times more likely to be abused then other women. I wanted to put a face on someone who is native but does not stand for all natives. So you’re rooting for Robin. She was very articulate and was able to talk about her feelings.

Q6: You divided your film into two parts. Can you tell us about that?
A6: In Part I it’s hard for people to believe Robin because she’s an alcoholic like a lot of abused women and she’s not a perfect mother. It’s hard to get all of the elements out there. You watch Robin and you begin to trust her because she’s real. People are hard to really understand and it’s difficult to capture all of the elements of their personality. I felt that the audience really was able to see all of Robin’s dimensions in Part I. Part II of the film explores the universal themes of men/women.

Q7: With so much footage, what was your approach in the editing room? How long did this film take to make from start to finish?
A7: It took six months to mix the film, as there were hundreds of thousands of audio files. You have to be out of your mind to make films this way. I certainly don’t tell other people to make films this way!

For more information on director David Sutherland and his work, visit:

© 2013 Behind the Doc Lens. (Lauren Brody, Blogger & Isabel Garcia, Producer).

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