Kind Hearted Woman: Filmmaker David Sutherland Paints a Portrait
Written by Natalie DiMaria | Posted by: NewEnglandFilm.com
We first meet kind hearted woman Robin Charboneau rolling a suitcase on a desolate snow covered street in North Dakota. You can feel her struggle against the whirring wind through her heavy breathing as a radio announcer describes the local weather conditions as 27 below 0°. She has just finished a stint in rehab for alcohol abuse and the whole scene seems to foreshadow the next three years–a strong woman in the face of a constant battle.
“Imagine being a little girl and crying and nobody listens, and then suddenly one day someone is here to listen,” said Charboneau in a recent press conference.
That someone is acclaimed filmmaker David Sutherland who prefers the title of ‘portraitist.’
“I’m not an investigative reporter and I’m not a standard documentarian,” explained Sutherland. “I try to get a likeness of my subjects like a portrait painter, but I don’t paint. I’m just trying to put a face on these people you otherwise wouldn’t know.”
Sutherland spent three years with Charboneau documenting her struggle with sobriety and her memories of being sexually abused as a child, all while fighting for custody of her children against the Oglala Sioux tribal courts.
“When we come into the story she was just starting to deal with all of the abuse, she was so raw, and when I finally chose her for the film she started to think that maybe this was the reason she had gone through all of that pain,” he said.
Sutherland admits he was scared of Charboneau when they first met, but was ultimately compelled by the strong single mother who often wrote poetry. “I didn’t think she would be able to handle change, but what happened was I was never so wrong about someone in my entire life. She learned to be an amazing mom, and she’s becoming a really published public speaker,” he said.
Sutherland has succeeded in painting us another portrait of an individual human experience. His projects will always start with a person rather than the subject matter.
“The issues come out of the people. If you root for them, you care about them, and you know someone who just happens to be a family farmer, or happens to be kids growing up in eastern Kentucky, and here I’m saying you happen to know someone who was abused who’s Native American,” he said.
Sutherland has been painting compelling portraits for years, often setting his canvas in the forgotten corners of rural America despite his east coast roots. He has been deemed the ‘rural filmmaker’ and was even encouraged to run for mayor in Nebraska upon the completion of one of his projects.
“It’s funny because I’m actually from the city but I like the prairie. It’s not that you don’t have great people in the city but I got addicted to the rural places and the rural people,” he said.
In 1995 Sutherland brought us to Northern California in Out of Sight; a documentary which chronicled the story of Diane, a blind cowgirl involved in various love affairs in the midst of her quest for financial and personal independence.
“I wanted to show her, not like ‘three blind mice see how they run.’ You like her, she’s complicated, she’s brings a sexuality to it. She’s a woman, a person, who just happens to be blind,” said Sutherland.
In 1998 Sutherland presented The Farmer’s Wife, which followed a young couple in Nebraska as they face the economic hardships of running a farm and the toll it takes on their marriage. In 2005 Sutherland painted the faces of two teenagers in eastern Kentucky. Country Boys documents Chris and Cody as they become adults and struggle against the odds to find out who they can become.
Sutherland has an uncanny ability to bring the audience directly into the lives of his subjects. He portrays incredibly intimate stories through his brave subjects in a signature style; he is known for spending years with his subjects in order to document their growth and change. Sutherland spent a total of six years filming Country Boys and most recently, three years with Kind Hearted Woman.
Sutherland is also known for using delicate breathing sounds to achieve that intimate feel; a process that has proved to be extremely time consuming.
“It takes a long time to mix the sounds, sometimes I spend six hours in the sound studio. I’m not sure people would like to make films this way. I’m a dinosaur! But I want you to hear them breathing so you feel like you’re in their skin,” he said
Still it is a difficult feat to get individuals to open up about such difficult issues as religion, infidelity, and sexual abuse, which are just some of the topics that his films cover. This is a skill Sutherland learned from his father. “My father talked to everyone in the same voice, it didn’t matter their race, their ethnicity their class, he just talked to them like himself. I talk to my subjects in my own voice so they get to know me pretty well. If you give something to somebody of yourself, they will always give something back to you,” he said.
Sutherland first started messing around with Super 8 film while in high school, but just like famed portrait artists Degas, Manet, or Cézanne, Sutherland learned his skills early on in Paris, France. “I was studying there and I had such a bad accent they sent me to the movies to learn. I started going about five times a week and eventually I started critiquing them.”
Sutherland continued to travel and eventually graduated from Tufts University and U.S.C film school. He returned to the east coast to run the family tire business with his brother in Cambridge. However only a year after it was purchased from their father, the establishment burned down in a fire, ending a 42-year family tradition.
The devastating accident allowed Sutherland to return his dream of being a filmmaker, where he has since left his mark on the cinematic world.
“You have to love doing it, it becomes your life. In this last film we were doing a stakeout in front of the federal court house and what happened was, you’re in there, pissing in empty bottles, you’re there for hours and people probably think you look so pathetic, but you are shooting and getting it and I would miss that type of rush and excitement.”
Sutherland’s dedication has certainly paid off. In 1999, the Harvard University Film Archives honored him with a ten-day retrospective of his films. In 2003 and 2004, Sutherland was invited to judge The Writer’s Guild of America, East awards for best documentary screenplay. Most recently, in 2007, the Museum of Modern Art honored him as the “featured director” in the Director’s Tribute at their annual International Documentary Fortnight series. They screened an unprecedented 14 hours of one filmmaker’s work.
All the years of filming, interviewing, and sound editing has culminated in his most recent work, Kind Hearted Woman, set to air in a two part series on April 1st and 2nd on PBS’ Frontline in collaboration with Independent Lens.
Charboneau’s story reminded Sutherland of how important family is. He is never sure if he will do another project, but we’ve seen how that has turned out in the past.
“There are moments that you cry, you’re tougher, you’re not as afraid, all of that stuff makes you feel very alive. I guess I’m addicted to adventure.”
Catch Kind Hearted Woman on PBS on April 1 & 2. For more information, read more about Kind Hearted Woman at PBS.