Like everyone else who had just seen the feature documentary “Lost Sparrow” I sit, glued to my seat. It’s a powerful, well made film. It was also a very personal film for the filmmaker.
I want to speak with this remarkable filmmaker. But he’s not at the screening.
Flash Forward five days. I’m at the Eden bar, speaking with the FFF photographer when I mention that “Lost Sparrow” is my favorite film in the entire festival and how much I wanted to meet the filmmaker. In a moment that can only happen at the FFF, the photographer suddenly remarks, “Hey I just saw Chris–there he is over there.” Then, louder, “Hey Chris, come over here, someone wants to meet you.”
Thus begins a very personal conversation with Chris Billing.
Chris is at a disadvantage. This film told us many personal things about him and his family. [I will not reveal all the personal things uncovered in the movie, as that would be a spoiler for those who have not seen the film. I highly recommend you watch this movie. I'll tell you how you can see it at the end of this post.] I decide to begin the interview by leveling the playing field. In an unusual choice for a blog reporter, I start the interview by sharing with him a personal story from my past that parallels a story line from his film.
It is evident from the onset that Chris is very open, honest and sincere. Having developed a little rapport, I begin the interview:
LA: Tell me about your approach to this film.
CB: One thing I made a point of doing is I didn’t try to give easy answers to questions that didn’t have easy answers. I tried to answer the question of what happened to my two brothers. We may never know. The other question is what did my mother know or not know?
LA: Tell me about the point in your life when you decided it was time to make this film.
CB: I was a journalist in China. When I came back, it had always been within my mind to explore this question of what happened to my two brothers. I was at a family Thanksgiving, talking to my sister Janelle. She revealed that she had been the last one to see the boys before they ran away from home. They had known the things that went on inside the house. I knew that this was a film that could have more meaning, for society.
LA: Do you regret making the film?
CB: I often said if I had known going into it what the process required to make the film was, I would not have done it. Looking back, I’m very proud of the film and I’m glad I did it. It’s a very important film.
LA: Did you know about the darker secrets that become uncovered in the documentary prior to making the documentary?
CB: I knew since my college years that something had happened between [one of] my [siblings] and my father. I thought there was [some dark secret]. I didn’t see the connection between [that and] the deaths of my brothers. My sister Janelle revealed that. It was the last bit of detail that made me decide to film.
LA: Was there a lot that had to be left out of the film?
CB: As far as what’s not in the film. I did ask the Crow Reservation what might have happened if the boys had remained. Another question, if my mother had received the letter asking for the two girls to go back to the reservation, would she have sent them back. She said she certainly would have considered it.
[Chris pauses for a moment, contemplating. He appears to have made a decision, then he continues.]
I did have a second meeting with my father. After I interviewed Lana. I was not expecting to have a follow up interview. This was not as a filmmaker or journalist, this is as the son. That was more for my own understanding.
LA: What did he say?
CB: I’m not sure I have a right to disclose that…
At this point, I snap close the lid on the laptop I am using to take notes for this interview. I look Chris in the eye and say, “tell me.” This is not coming from a journalist who wants to write a sensationally, gossipy story. This is coming from one human being to another–both of whom are trying to find answers to difficult questions.
Chris continues. He shares more personal information about his family while I share some about mine. We speak of religion, Native American culture, personal relationships, marriage, family secrets and more. The more we talk, the more thankful I am that there are people in this world like Chris Billing.
Since I did not know I would be interviewing Chris, I did not prepare. After meeting him, I spent some time doing research. According to the internet, Chris went to a christian college in SE Pennsylvania, then Harvard Divinity School. I’m not surprised that he got into Harvard, he is obviously brilliant.
He also speaks Mandarin Chinese and Modern Hebrew. He spent two years in Israel. Someone in China asked him to come to that country to teach Hebrew. Apparently, they were seeking a non-Jewish person who knew Hebrew because they did not want the potential political turmoil of having someone Jewish.
While in China, Chris worked for NBC and CBS, eventually becoming a bureau chief in Beijing. His skill at telling a story is evident in this documentary. This is his second feature film. In 2005 he created the documentary “Up to the Mountain, Down to the Village” about three Chinese young adults who were sent to “learn from the peasants.”
He’s glad that “Lost Sparrow” was not his first film. He learned a lot from making the other documentaries and that helped him make a better movie for this very personal film.
Chris reveals to me a little about the business of making a movie. He tells me how much the documentary has sold for. It’s a paltry sum for a master craftsman who spent two years of his life and a significant amount of money creating this masterpiece. I am sad to think of the number of people who will never even know this film exists.
“We’ve been bought by PBS, it’s going to air in November on their Independent Lens series,” Chris is quick to point out. He also says that he is getting a lot of invitations from colleges to go on a lecture tour.
To see this movie, all you have to do is go to www.LostSparrowMovie.com and order it. The price, with shipping, is only $23.95. Please note, Chris did not ask and does not know that I am promoting his website like this. I believe that movies this important need to be seen and talked about.