The opening moments of the new documentary Lost Sparrow shows grainy footage of three-decade-old images of a large, multi-ethnic family. The seemingly happy clan poses for a group photo. But the clip ends suddenly, with the flickering white screen fading to black.
The darkness is replaced by video from the present. It is a recent cloudy day at, of all places, a cemetery in Manheim, N.Y. There, the camera pans past American flags flapping in the wind before it zooms in on a bulldozer tearing into a gravesite's soil. Two coffins are excavated, boxed up, and loaded onto the back of a U-Haul truck.
This sudden switch from idyllic family life to death foreshadows the jarring twists awaiting viewers of this 90-minute look into the hidden sins of an American family. The film premieres Tuesday on the PBS series Independent Lens (check local listings for showings in your area).
The two coffins contained the remains of the adopted brothers of filmmaker Chris Billing. During the summer of 1978, a freight train struck and killed Bobby, 13, and Tyler, 11. The tragedy marked then-16-year-old Chris Billing's first encounter with death. He has remained haunted by questions surrounding his family's loss: Why did the two boys, adopted Crow Indians, run away from the Billing family? Why were they on the tracks when the train came?
Billing-whose previous documentary, Up to the Mountain, Down to the Village, explored youth reeducation camps during China's Cultural Revolution-decided to focus his camera on answering these questions. The dark secrets his investigation reveals are more harrowing and painful then he ever imagined.
This unflinching examination of the bitterness, anger, and depression fostered by habitual and unrepentant sin can be a grueling and unsettling experience to watch. But its brutal honesty, told through home movies and recent interviews with survivors, offers insights that will motivate viewers to be vigilant around those who can't protect themselves.
At a recent screening I attended, Christina Kirchner, the executive director of Philadelphia's Children's Alliance, said the real but broken faces behind the film's tragedy may make others more comfortable with confronting their own hardships.
"Abuse exists, and its consequences are devastating," she said. "But we still have people who want to minimize it or deny it. There is still secrecy. There is still shame."
The film relates how the two boys are shepherded away from an alcoholic biological father on a Montana reservation. They end up at what seems like the ideal family environment, living in a sprawling, 26-room Victorian mansion perched on a hillside overlooking the town of Little Falls in upstate New York. An adoption is supposed to provide the children with greater safety and security, but something goes horribly wrong with this story line.
It is a life that one family member describes as "living at the end of a shotgun. I could never tell when it was going to go off."
The Billing family had 10 children: four adopted and six biological. Extensive use of home movies suggests a blissful family-smiling kids celebrate birthdays, play sports, pick pumpkins, and work on the family farm. But these images offer sharp contrasts with the reality Chris Billing eventually uncovers. And this discovery changes the family forever.
"See what sin does," Stuart Billing, the family's father says in a haunting confessional. "I'm undone."
But Chris Billing is a Christian. (Full disclosure: I go to the same church he attends in Washington, D.C.) And as he takes this horrific journey, he gradually leads his family toward a shot at redemption.
Lost Sparrow climaxes with a reunion more than two decades in the making. Will forgiveness follow confession? Will reconciliation and healing come? These are the new questions the Billing family must answer as they struggle to put to rest that terrible day on the train tracks.
This filmmaker of faith is willing to use his creative gifts and his own past to show that no family is immune from our fallen nature. It is a difficult story for Billing to tell. But those who can endure the slow unraveling of his family's puzzle will be rewarded with glimpses of courage, perseverance, and grace.
This documentary's examination of family and forgiveness is more layered then any episode of television's current reality TV phase. Its raw look at the weight of sin on both its victims and the unrepentant sinner can be more powerfully instructive than the average three-point sermon.