An impactful and intimate journey in discovering one’s identity. Brooke Swaney’s Daughter of a Lost Bird is an emotional documentary that captivates you throughout. An important viewing.
DAUGHTER OF A LOST BIRD follows Kendra, an adult Native adoptee, as she reconnects with her birth family, discovers her Lummi heritage, and confronts her own identity issues. Her singular story echoes many affected by the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Indian Adoption Project.
Lost birds are Native Americans who were adopted by white families and assimilated into the lives of white people, losing their important heritage. Kendra goes through a whirlwind of emotions as she starts off nervously trying to connect with her birth mother, April and then gets hit with the emotional excitement of finally meeting her and allowing her into her life. Couple that with the mixed feelings she has of being so warmly welcomed to having a residing anger within her that this happened.
Not only for her but her mother and thousands of other indigenous children for many decades, then we are left with a rather extraordinary documentary in Daughter of a Lost Bird. Of course their situations are different, but they appear as if her own adoption was due to the struggles April had as she grew up, lacking a place to call her own, a family to call hers. Drifting endlessly yearning for knowing where she is from cost April a lot of her life and Kendra and the documentary becomes increasingly incensed by it.
If ever a moment hits home about the complicated situation placed upon Kendra and April, Kendra visits the land of her grandfather and the Lummi tribe. Like her mother years before, she went to learn as much as possible about her heritage; with it being so new to her, she wants to glean as much information as possible. Yet, due to Kendra coming back (as her newly found relatives say), they present the issue that Kendra must come back and visit her tribe as much as possible due to her ancestors being here. However, Kendra is overwhelmed and admits that she may be only wanted that first visit to feel like a tourist, to come and learn and leave.
Despite this, a connection is immediately formed, it may not be as close as what her tribe have for her just yet, but it is there. The decision to let events play out over many years without trying to push a narrative allows for an absorbing story to grow on you naturally. Swaney has far too much compassion to betray her subjects, and it is the honesty that rings true through the tears that grab you.
There are plenty of tragic moments throughout as Swaney returns again and again to the dreaded Indian Child Welfare Act. We learn with some harrowing news footage of the governments’ intentions by displacing these children from a life they should have known. To give them a life that they think is better. But, strikingly, as everyone becomes angrier about what has happened to people like April and Kendra, Kendra and we realise that she is the perfect embodiment of that Act. She was taken at such a young age that she would never know her heritage and was raised in a loving white home. She assimilated perfectly, and if not for the chance that she decided to search for her parents, she would never know of the Lummi tribe and find that connection that had long been lost.
Daughter of a Lost Bird perfectly, even in its short runtime, shows the damage carried out by ICWA. We learn a great deal thanks to those who have been greatly affected by it. It’s mission was to completely wipe out the Native Americans by not even allowing them to have a name from their heritage. This is mentioned as Kendra asks why people have a white name and an Native American name, it is all just so devastating.
Swaney is so respectful throughout Daughter of a Lost Bird that she questions whether or not she should be making the film midway through. She also knows when to keep her distance; her unobtrusive filmmaking at times is appreciated as daughter and mother reconnect, and the sunlight is fading. We may not see our subjects as clearly as before, but it doesn’t matter. There is immense power within filming everything as natural as possible.
While she has to make sure not to record sound when sacred music is being played, the stillness of Laura Ortman’s score coming in its place brings a higher level of emotion to the film. Of course, we can never know what they heard, yet that power within those images stay with you for longer than you expect.
At times Daughter of a Lost Bird can be a difficult and emotional watch. It needs to be, and thank goodness it is, this documentary will not just tidy everything up into a tidy bow. It asks us about indigenous identity and finding that sense of belonging for an adopted child. This is a powerful and rewarding watch. It highlights issues that may have passed us. Yet, by remaining so true to itself, it becomes a must-watch.
Daughter of a Lost Bird will be playing at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and is available to stream across the UK and Ireland between 17-25 March via https://ff.hrw.org/london
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