Jane Wells on Native Silence, sex trafficking and human-rights documentary filmmaking

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Jane Wells has devoted a decade to documenting human rights abuses throughout the world. She served as producer on The Devil Came on Horseback, a chronicle of the genocide in Darfur, and most recently directed the feature documentary Tricked, about sex trafficking in the United States. While working on the film, she learned of the plight of native women who, as children, had been forced into foster care and stripped of their cultural origins. Moved by their stories, Wells directed Native Silence, which will show at the Aspen Shortsfest tonight. In advance of that screening, Westword spoke with Wells about her documentary and her approach to human rights film-making.

See also: Favianna Rodriguez talks sexual liberation, immigration, racial justice and art

Westword: Talk about Native Silence.

Jane Wells: It's the story of two Native American grandmothers who were taken away from their families when they were very young. One was removed from her mother at the age of eighteen months, because somebody decided that her mother wasn't a suitable mother for the child. She went through a series of foster homes, from one to another, until she ran away, hit the streets and became involved in prostitution and drug addiction.

The other woman was dropped off at a boarding school by her mother when she was five or six and never saw her mother again. She actually thought that her mother had abandoned her, but in truth, she was taken away and not returned to her mother because her mother wasn't viewed as a suitable mother.

Those are the two main stories, and they are pretty typical of things that happened to women who are now grandmothers. That was one of the ways that we colonized the native American population and broke it up in the twentieth century -- through forced adoptions and boarding schools. The impact of that was to separate children from their families and to separate them from their culture.

The film points at the larger story through the experiences of these two grandmothers and their children and grandchildren, who are trying to break the cycle. The daughters of the grandmothers are breaking the cycle by introducing their children back to the native culture and their history.

Talk about how you connected to the issue of trafficking in native communities.

Initially, I had heard that 10,000 young American girls were being trafficked. I was so staggered by the figure that I just didn't believe it. I went on to research it and created the feature documentary Tricked. One of the things that I did in my research on sex trafficking was to go up to the North Country, to Minnesota, to spend some time with the social workers who were working with Native American girls who were being trafficked and learn more about what was happening with these very, very young girls. What I came to realize was that this story was so much more complex and so distressing that I felt that it needed its own film, and I chose not to incorporate it into the bigger story or the other story of trafficking in America. It wasn't just about trafficking and prostitution. It was also about fostering, forced adoption and young native girls being taken away from their families and put into boarding schools and the cultural decimation of the families of native people in the twentieth century.

Read on for more from Jane Wells.

One of the things that came out in the film was this focus on the foster-care system. Can you speak to that?

I think that continues to be a practice because we still have an issue where if the authority believes that parents are involved with alcohol or drugs or whatever, it is easy to have the children taken away and put into foster care. One of the things that I came away feeling strongly about is that the minute you break down the family structure, you're creating yet another harm. It's a really difficult, complex, vicious cycle. I don't think that the foster care system really benefits this community at all. I think that the most important thing to heal a lot of the harms that have been done through colonization is to keep families intact and to honor their culture. That doesn't really seem to happen through the foster-care system. I think that the increase in suicides amongst very young native people is a huge concern and something we have to be aware of. I don't think taking kids away from their families is the answer to that.

There are lots of people I know who are alcoholics and have children. There are lots of people I know who had alcoholic parents. I grew up in London. We didn't get taken away from our parents for those things. We grew up to be adult children of alcoholics or whatever, but we didn't have our total cultural and family structure decimated. If you think about what that would be for a Jew or a practicing Christian who happened to have a drink or drug problem: They would suddenly be taken away and totally separated from their culture and their practices, and they would never see their child again. I guess it does happen, but it's not as common. It is an impact of colonization as we're continuing on into the twenty-first century.

As you approach these subjects, what is your process?

For me, what I feel really strongly about is the power of story, but also, I feel that somebody's story is their story to tell in their way. I feel pretty strongly about that. A lot of stories are told in a very manipulative way. I feel very protective of the people that I film, and I try to be very conscious about doing that. After I first did some filming, at one point, I said, maybe I shouldn't film. Maybe we should get a Native American filmmaker to finish it. They said, "No. No. No. We trust you. You can go ahead and do it." I do try to build some trust and mutual respect from the subject.

It's a three-part process, because when somebody tells their story, there is some level of healing in that. When we listen to their story, then we can honor them and their story, and then it can be instructive for audiences who hear it. I try to let people tell their story the way they want to tell it, rather than asking them a set group of questions.

Talk about the filmmakers who have influenced you?

One factor for me is that my father was a filmmaker/producer, actually in the Second World War. He worked in the British army, in the film unit, and he was responsible for making propaganda pieces for the United States prior to the American entry in World War II. And then once the Americans joined in, he was with their units filming stuff in the war. Towards the end, he filmed the liberation of some of the concentration camps and worked on a film documenting what we came to know as the Holocaust. The film he made was shut down by the allied governments before it was ever released. That film really marked and scarred his whole life in the sense that he was a Jew, he had been there and filmed it and wasn't able to show the world what had happened. That film, as he had produced it and scripted it, had its world premiere this year at the Berlin Film Festival, 69 years after they made it. I think that was a big influence on how I came to look at the world. That legacy of wanting to highlight injustice and show what happened and use film to tell it is something that's really in my DNA.

Can you talk about your commitment to human rights in your work as a documentarian?

The expression I hate most in the world is when people say they're giving voice to the voiceless, because nobody is voiceless. Everybody has a voice. I'm very interested in the people whose voices are not widely heard and want to amplify their voices. What excites me about this work is to connect with people who have stories that we should all know and care about and to help amplify them as best I can. I just feel compelled to do it, and if I don't do it, who else will?

How can people get involved in this work?

I encourage people to partner with local organizations wherever they are and to really open your eyes. If I see an image of a Philadelphia Eagles fan with a knife through the head of a Native American mascot that looks like a "Redskin," I know that is incredibly painful and insulting to the women I've been filming, and it's probably something that the Eagles fans probably just don't get. I think it's time that we all wake up and get it, you know?

We have a terrible habit thinking that everything that's atrocious happens overseas. It could be in Syria or Crimea or Afghanistan or whatever. There are really bad human rights abuses happening every day in America, under our noses and in plain sight. We're really quick to point the finger, and it's really important that we also look at ourselves and see how we are complicit in that.

Aspen Shortsfest runs through April 13 at the Wheeler Opera House, 320 East Hyman Avenue in Aspen. Tickets, $15, can be purchased at aspenshowtix.com or 970-920-5770. For more information, go to aspenfilm.org or call 970-925-6882. Find me on Twitter at: @kyle_a_harris

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