Robin Charboneau had a dream after she was asked to be the subject of a three-year documentary focusing on rural American life.
The 32-year old divorced single mother of two who suffered abuse as a child by her adopted family said she couldn’t decide about whether to commit to the film suggested by David Sutherland. She prayed to her Creator to help understand her feelings and woke up shaking and mad at everyone who had not protected her as a child.
“I realized I had to do the film, because if I could help one person, he or she is worth sharing my story and life,” she told The Journal.
“Kind Hearted Woman,” a special two-part series created by filmmaker Sutherland, follows the International Falls woman over three years as she struggles to raise her two children, further her education and heal from her abuse. The film will air locally on PBS Channel 8 at 8 p.m. April 1-2.
The film will also be the focus of a presentation from 5:30-7:30 p.m. April 25 at Backus Community Center Dining Room.
The journey that Charboneau and her children continue on today began years ago when was she was abused by her adopted family on a reservation in North Dakota.
“Recovery and healing last through a lifetime,” she said.
Sutherland, who told The Journal Tuesday morning in a telephone call that he had minutes earlier finished sound for the film, said that his focus on rural America did not start with the idea of following the life of a native woman, but instead was to focus on poverty, like he did in his other films, “The Farmer’s Wife” and “Country Boys.” Except in this case, he said, abuse would be a part of the background.
But after talking with Charboneau, he changed his mind.
The filming began in a Spirit Lake, N.D., reservation just after Charboneau left what Sutherland called a drunk tank. Kind Hearted Woman follows Charboneau through the ups and downs of her life, which involves healing from the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, finding out her daughter, Darian, 17, has been abused, losing custody of Darian and son Anthony, 14, to the tribe, moving to International Falls, suffering a breakdown and marrying and divorcing a man who ends up in jail.
Sutherland called Charboneau brave. “We watch her become a great mom,” he said, explaining that she was not equipped with parenting skills because of her upbringing. “Her quest is to help people.”
For three years, Sutherland and his film crew followed Charboneau, who lives above Friends Against Abuse, where she works.
“I got used to them being around,” she said of the film crew. “But the interviews could be grueling.”
Sutherland was just the third person Charboneau told of her abuse. She now serves as speaker about abuse, urging other survivors to begin their own healing journey.
“He ended up giving me strength,” she said of Sutherland. “He started a history to myself.”
Charboneau said she minimized, and still does, the abuse she suffered. She said her dream involved someone that had died, symbolizing how she was killing herself and had to let go of the person she was before.
“I had to be on a journey of healing” she said. “And that not only would help me as a person, but help me help my kids.”
Charboneau said all that she and her children have experienced has led her to speak out about abuse. “I am grateful for the life I have today and the people in it,” she said. “It has all helped me grow on my journey.”
Charboneau’s children also are active in making presentations about abuse in an effort to let people in similar situations know they are not alone. She said she is proud and grateful of who they are and will become.
“The most lonely spot in the world is when you think that nobody understands — you are dumb, crazy and nobody cares about your life,” she said. “We learned that’s not true. There are people out there that care and love you truly and honestly. And when you speak out, you change yourself.”
Charboneau said her story and the film may trigger reactions in some people who have similar experiences. That’s why she insists stories written about the film include resources where people can turn for help. The Friends Against Abuse, 407 Fourth St., number is 285-7220. Its 24/7 crisis line is 888-344-3264.
She urged people in abusive situations to put themselves within a realm of people who can help “like a wall of protectors around you.”
Charboneau said she’s anxious to see the reaction of people who watch the film. “I want to see how it opens doors of communication between people and local advocacy programs.” And, she said, she hopes members of her tribe realize how changes are now in place to protect children that were not in place when she was young.
Filming was completed a year or so ago, she said, and she misses Sutherland and the film crew. Both said they expected to visit soon after the film’s premier.
Sutherland credited the International Falls community for welcoming he and his film crew, but even more importantly for welcoming Charboneau and her children.
He said scenes shot at the Border Bar with a Pat Porter performance are included in the film. He said he was familiar with International Falls as Frostbite Falls, the home of the “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” which aired on television in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and as the home of Tammy Faye Baker.
Other Borderland influences included in the film are the voice of a local radio station personality, FAA’s staff and offices, a shot of The Journal’s front page featuring a large pair of red high heels and local schools, among others.
Sutherland, who calls himself a portraitist, said the film allows viewers to witness Charboneau’s growing strength. “She becomes someone very special over three years,” he said.
Some people already know about Charboneau’s story, said Sutherland. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gave credit to Charboneau in 2010 as becoming someone who can turn their life around.
“I witnessed Robin becoming a great woman, and I am not just saying that because she is the subject of the film, but she keeps going and so do her children,” Sutherland said. “My hope, by the end of the film, is you look at the family that just happens to be native. You feel them living and breathing. My goal is to have you go through their experiences with them as the story changes.”
Sutherland said his films do not have an agenda. “I am just looking for somebody to follow that has a goal, not just recovery, but a quest in their life,” he said.