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Kind Hearted Woman on PBS offers portrait of woman healing herself, community

Robin Poor Bear. Photo courtesy of David Sutherland Productions.

Robin Poor Bear. Photo courtesy of David Sutherland Productions.

Acclaimed filmmaker David Sutherland does not describe himself as a movie director or producer. Instead, he calls himself a “portraitist.”

Sutherland picks subjects to film for documentaries and immerses himself fully in their lives, filming them over a period of years and creating a  complete portrait of them for viewers.

His work includes “The Farmers Wife,” a 1998 film that looks at a cash-strapped Nebraska family struggling to hold on to its farm, and “Country Boys,” a 2006 documentary that follows two teenage boys coming of age in Appalachian Kentucky.

His newest film “Kind Hearted Woman,” which airs in two parts on April 1 and 2 at 9 p.m. Eastern on PBS’s Frontline, is yet another portrait of a person struggling to overcome adversity.

Social workers play key roles in “Kind Hearted Woman.” Some filming took place at the Minnesota State University School of Social Work in Moorhead, including scenes where professor Jeremy Carney, MSW, PhD, taught and advised Poor Bear. A man who later mentors Poor Bear’s son Anthony is also a professional social worker, director David Sutherland said.

This time Sutherland and his crew turned their cameras on Robin Poor Bear (formerly Charboneau), an Oglala Sioux woman and mother of two teenagers living on North Dakota’s remote Spirit Lake Reservation.

The odds are stacked against Robin Poor Bear. She was sexually abused as a child, was battered by her husband and boyfriends, is a recovering alcoholic, and is struggling to regain custody of her son Anthony and daughter Darian from a husband who sexually abused Darian and a foster daughter.

Despite her troubles Poor Bear has hope. She is an aspiring social worker struggling to find the money and time to attend classes at the Minnesota State University School of Social Work just over the state line  in Moorhead.

Director David Sutherland and Robin Poor Bear. Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.

Director David Sutherland and Robin Poor Bear. Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.

And later in the film you see her reaching out to help other women and children in similar circumstances.

At the outset Sutherland said he was not so sure Poor Bear would make a good subject.

“She was raw and frantic — her story was too passive,” he said. “She had not entered alcohol treatment and I thought she couldn’t effectually change.”

However viewers will follow Robin between 2007 and 2011 and she goes through a roller coaster custody battle with a tribal social service agency that was so inept it was later taken over by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

There are also emotional scenes when Poor Bear discovers her ex-husband abused Darian and she decides to go to court for justice.

“She really became a great mother,” Sutherland said.

Sutherland also said he hopes his film will highlight the need for more educated and trained social workers on some tribal lands.

“The government has stepped in (and taken over the Spirit Lake Reservation social services) and hopefully it might make more people speak up,” he said. “The film might, in some weird way, effectuate change.”

You can read more about the film, watch the trailer, and find out what has happened on the Spirit Lake Reservation after Sutherland completed the documentary at this PBS website. And to learn more about how social workers help children and families overcome life’s hurdles visit the National Association of Social Workers’ “Help Starts Here” Kids and Families website.

 

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