Kind Hearted Woman debuts on most PBS affiliates tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain. You should check local listings.
The two-part, four-hour-forty-minute documentary Kind Hearted Woman covers three years in the life of Robin Charboneau, an Oglala Sioux woman in her thirties, with a busted marriage, two children, and a history of mistreatment and alcoholism. (The title refers to the English-language meaning of her name.) In the opening scenes, Charboneau, having decided to get her life together, is having her home ritually cleansed in the hope that this will help her swear off alcohol. Then she sets out to escape the culture of abuse and self-destruction that pervade her Spirit Lake Nation reservation, where, she says, “I could get a ride faster to the bar than I could to the grocery store.” She enrolls in school and makes plans to build a better life for herself and her kids.
By the time the three years are up, things are starting to look better for them, but for a long time, the challenges she has to face—including many problems that people living above the poverty line would never think of as potentially crippling—look insurmountable. The film, a "co-presentation" of Frontline and Independent Lens, was directed by David Sutherland, who also made the similarly themed (and similarly epic-length) Frontline documentaries The Farmer’s Wife (1998) and Country Boys (2006). It’s a good example of what public television is good for; there’s simply no other way that a filmmaker could get a project this ambitious, with a subject this devoid of commercial appeal, financed and given national distribution. But it’s also a reminder of the limits of good intentions and honest labor devoted to worthy subjects.
Much of the first half of Kind Hearted Woman is grueling, partly because Sutherland shapes the material in the least audience-friendly way. He barely sets up a context or introduces his heroine before Charboneau is briefing the audience on the horrors of her upbringing: “I don’t remember the first time I was raped, but I remember the emergency room after the rape.” She explains that, as a child, she was abused by family members, placed in foster care, then raped by her foster father and two adopted brothers. At this point in the film, a viewer is still at the “Who is this person, and why am I committing to watching almost five hours of her life?” stage. It’s a lot to take in.
When she was in her early twenties, she tracked down her birth father, who first denied that she was his daughter, but finally came around. He wants to be there for her, at least as a sounding board, but any reminder of her existence angers his wife. They have a single meeting early in the film, in which he listens to her dreams and slips her a little money. Shaky as he is, he seems to be about the closest thing she has to a support system. Unable to resist a little snarky editorializing, Sutherland slips in a shot of a billboard advertising the local casino. Its slogan—“YOU’RE SO CLOSE TO WINNING!”—is as mocking as the words ‘THE WORLD IS YOURS” in Scarface, and about a million times more poignant. (But, aesthetically, it’s not much tackier than the moment when Charboneau reads some of her poetry aloud, and Sutherland decides to illustrate this with a “lyrical” shot of a buffalo walking through purple clouds.)
Sutherland, who refers to himself as a “portraitist,” must have seen in Charboneau a woman who had a compellingly traumatic back story but also the spirit, drive, talent, and brains to come out the other end and, with any luck, become an inspirational heroine. Things blew up on both of them when her daughter, Darien, admitted, on camera, that she had been sexually molested by her father. (At the time, Darien was 10. Her younger brother, Anthony, is of even greater concern to his mother, who describes him as “more fragile.” She worries about leaving him in the care of his father while she’s away at school, because he’s used to her “hugging and kissing and telling him ‘I love you,’ and building up his self-confidence.”)
Charboneau, working within the tribal court system, reports the abuse and demands full custody of her kids, but the child care worker assigned to the case is a friend of her ex-husband’s sister, and she sees to it that Charboneau herself is accused of molesting the kids, so that, for a while, they’re taken away from her and placed with her ex-husband. It develops that part of the problem is that the ex-husband’s family is trying to punish her for allowing a film crew to document her life; they don’t want the family’s dirty linen aired. The way the filmmaking process seems to be affecting the raw, undiluted “reality” that Sutherland wants to capture recalls Albert Brooks’ Real Life, except that there, the situation was funny, whereas here, it almost makes you want to kill yourself.
For a while in the middle, Kind Hearted Woman seems about to turn into an expose of the way the social services are conducted on the Spirit Lake reservation—or were, until the Bureau of Indian Affairs, responding to years of scandalous mismanagement of child abuse cases, moved in last year. According to a New York Times article, the reservation “has 38 registered sex offenders among its 6, 2000 residents, a rate of one offender for every 163 residents.”) But Sutherland pulls back; this isn’t the story he’s here to tell—he’s a “portraitist,” remember, not an investigative journalist—and maintains his focus on Charboneau. In a way, his decision is honorable, and by sticking to the game plan, he records a number of telling moments, such as those in which Charboneau has to grapple with how she’s going to pay for her school books and, when she’s once again the sole provider for her kids, all the ridiculous little things that schools think nothing of asking parents to shell out for, like her son’s “pencil pouch” and “coloring box.” But it also feels as if an opportunity to jump onto a bigger story that was just about to break wide was allowed to slip away.
Kind Hearted Woman has a lot to say about how the world can seem structured to tell poor people they should give up. And, once Charboneau hooks up with a decent man who, unfortunately, is also plagued with self-doubt and insecurity that fuel his occasional jealous meltdowns, it also reveals a fair amount about the ways that many women who have a lot stacked against them look at their kids, set their jaws, and just get to work, while the men fold up like so many cheap suits. But the last hour, much of which is devoted to showing Charboneau connecting with and inspiring the audiences at abuse-recovery meetings where she tells her story, is almost as tough to sit through as the first hour, except in a different way: It’s like the summing-up chin-music session that many PBS sessions feature after the end of a program like this, except without Phil Donahue or Ted Koppel there to referee. Toward the end, it’s Christmas, and as Charboneau’s family gears up to take one more brave leap forward together, the camera cuts to another billboard. This one just says, “BE GRATEFUL.” It doesn’t seem meant to be ironic.