Letters from Washington: Lost Sparrow Director Examines Family History

Posted on November 16, 2010

Filmmaker Chris Billing reflects on a screening of his film Lost Sparrow Monday night in Washington, D.C. The documentary premieres Tuesday night on Independent Lens at 10 PM (check local listings). 

Monday night’s screening was a stark reminder of the powerful and emotional response that Lost Sparrow can generate.  The film screened to a full house at D.C.'s Letelier Theater, in an event co-sponsored by the National Children's Alliance and Docs in Progress, a D.C.-based organization that promotes independent filmmaking.

After the closing credits rolled, I took questions and comments from the audience.  One audience member, clearly overcome by the film, made a show of storming out.  "Come on, honey.  Let's go!" were the last words he shouted as he left the theater. After nearly two years of showing Lost Sparrow at film festivals, conferences and college campuses, I've become accustomed to strong reactions and tough questioning.  

The film is my investigation into the 1978 deaths of my adopted Crow Indian brothers, Bobby and Tyler. As I probe the tragedy that took my two brothers, I uncover personal and unsettling events that occurred in my family.  And, because everyone's family faces struggles and challenges of its own, the film resonates with each individual viewer in a unique way. I was gratified that my sister Lana came up from North Carolina to attend the screening.  She is the biological sister of Bobby and Tyler, and plays a prominent role in Lost Sparrow.  Patty Talahongva, a Hopi journalist, served as MC for the event.  She has been a strong supporter of the film, and interviewed me for additional online video content that accompanies Lost Sparrow's broadcast premiere on Independent Lens.


Much of Monday night’s discussion focused on revealing family secrets.  In the case of Lost Sparrow, I have often said that had I known what I was getting myself into from the beginning, I would not have made the film.  Unraveling decades of denial is arduous and draining.  And there were times that I felt overwhelmed.  However, now that the film is complete, I'm proud of the accomplishment.  And I'm pleased that it is being used by organizations like the National Children's Alliance and the National Indian Child Welfare Association to further their work.  As one reporter recently wrote about Lost Sparrow, "Its brutal honesty ... offers insight that will motivate viewers to be vigilant around those who can't protect themselves." 

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