November 14, 2010

Independent Lens presents: Lost Sparrow

Lost Sparrow is the type of documentary that should come with a warning label: "May cause severe emotional distress". It does not contain much disturbing or graphic content, but the tragedy of the Billing family history is so nakedly laid bare that you can't help but be affected. I was mentally worn and emotionally vulnerable on the night that I watched it, and I'll fully admit the film's denouement had me sobbing. While I was reminded of Capturing the Friedmans, Surfwise, and Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, I was keenly aware while watching Lost Sparrow that there were many more social layers under the surface of this particular story.

Never manipulative and consistently engrossing, Lost Sparrow is a downward spiraling journey into the marginalization and mistreatment of the Native American community, the strength of the family bond, and the challenge of forgiving an unforgivable sin. If making a film about the skeletons in your family's closet is considered a sign of bravery (and I think it is), director Chris Billing deserves a medal of valor.

In the early 1970's, Billing's family adopted four Crow Indian siblings (two boys, two girls) who were removed from their home on an impoverished Montana reservation after numerous allegations of domestic abuse. The Billing family, already with six children, quickly became a family of 10 kids and two parents, seemingly as happy as they are in the family photo above. 

In 1978, however, the two Crow Indian brothers were mysteriously killed by a freight train near the family's home in upstate New York (no one knows why they were lying on the tracks). The accident devastated the family and the community, the children were buried nearby (against Crow tradition) and the wounds slowly began to heal - or so it appeared. Chris Billing went on to become a highly-respected journalist and the Beijing Bureau Chief for NBC, but he was always uncomfortable with the uncertainty around his brothers' death. Lost Sparrow is his effort to find out what happened, and in doing so he discovers much more than he bargained for, and much more than anyone should ever hope to discover and publicly share about their family.

What impressed me so much about Lost Sparrow was the impossibly objective light Chris Billing shone on the tragic history of this family, no doubt due to years of journalistic practice. He somehow does not condemn and he does not apologize, and tells an incredibly personal story without making an overtly personal film. No family is perfect, and the themes in Lost Sparrow - love, forgiveness, fear, and pain - resonate on a universally human level. While Lost Sparrow could be seen as a traditional documentary about family history that you'd expect to find on PBS, I saw it as much more: an unforgettable portrait about adoption, redemption, and owning up to a past that has haunted your family for 30 years.

Lost Sparrow premieres on PBS on Tuesday, November 16 (check local listings)


  1. Great and accurate review of a haunting and compelling documentary.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Thanks, Katie, and thanks for stopping by.

    Anonymous, I'm kind of stunned by your comment, but I appreciate what you're saying. You use "I" and "me" at least once, so I'm going to go out on a limb and assume you are Janelle StandsOverBull (Chris' adopted sister, for those who haven't seen the film yet). If that's the case, let me first extend my sympathy to you, Lana, and your family for what you've gone through. I hope you can understand that we viewers can only take what we see in this film at face value, not knowing whose idea it was or how any of the finances are being handled.

    But I hope you can also see how powerful the truth in the film is regardless of those details. It doesn't sound like you are saying anything in the film is inaccurate, just that you should have received the credit Chris is receiving. I do see that you are listed in the credits as the Associate Producer, and also thanked for the musical contributions (the music is excellent, btw), but I know that's not what you were looking for.

    I hope you and your family can reconcile all of your differences, and I'm glad you shared your story with the public (best wishes with your upcoming book and film as well). This film does have a powerful message about forgiveness, but I know it's not as easy to consider when you're in the middle of the situation.

  4. Well Thankyou,but the scene with Stu Billing was set-up and I sat with Lana all night to sober up which happens alot if she's coming home. I sit up with her and sit with her through her withdraws. Lana hasnt forgiven him and I suppose a large part of me is still ill. He never could look at me and apologize for severely beating me up and kicking me,bobby,and Tyler around like dogs. Believe me its not even close..until you have lived it or actually there. That isnt the only reason why Bobby and Tyler I said more wll be revealed. I approached Chris Billing with the story as I was already investigating other parts of their death. While doing Lost Sparrow talking to one of the detectives, he revealed disturbing comments that has forced me to persevere to do "Silent Cry". I'm not saying Chris doesnt have talent,obviously he does as you have viewed with the editing part. I dont appreciate him going around the media and lying saying this was his and his only. And believe me! Lana felt forced and she still calls me drunk how much she hates him..etc. so I'm the one that hears it and knows my sister best. Chris only took it on himself not considering the emotional percussions thereafter and the effect that scene would have on Lana and myself. In fact I was in disagreement with meeting Stu Billing. Like I said "Propped" to make him look good and his side. I'm upset and my friends know that this was my legacy to get justice for Lana,Bobby,Tyler, and I. I was going to put my proceeds to a Foundation called the "Sparrow Foundation" on my he promised to reimburse and accomodate myself. Never have seen anything. Never even told Lana and I of the awards. When I told Lana..she was pissed at him and knows I always told the truth in the family. I was always looked at as the bad guy for being honest as I was shunned and called a liar. When I was 18 I left home because of Stu Billing as this was the second time I left. The first time I left home was when we moved to New Jersey from Little Falls. He wanted to throw me from his vehicle on the way home going 80mph. You actually think anyone would believe me then..So please dont try to understand the Dynamics of my own Family. I call it like I see it. Chris Billing needs to be get Honest about how Lost Sparrow really started and came about...again Thankyou for your comment. Janelle StandsOverBull

  5. I googled your name..figuring you took your real name back. I wanted to know more. I look forward to knowing more. I grew up near Billings and in NW Wyoming. I know the country.

    I was hoping Lana had stayed in Montana.

    One word....Shaman. :)

  6. well mel you can email me or anyone that has questions..."" or facebook my Indian Name.

  7. Shaman is right....and a good attorney. It's funny that I can't find this documentary anywhere online! It's not even available at PBS, only trailers. Weird.

    J - I wish you the best and definitely want to hear your side about this dysfunctional family. Please, please don't let anything stop you from revealing your point of view. I think Billing's film is more as an avenue for redemption since he did nothing or was in complete denial over tragic events. It's time for you to move forward to be heard. Do it!

    One more thing...why aren't your comments over at Imdb regarding this film. You'd be surprised who scours those boards.


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