Bringing Missing Women To Life On The Screen: “Who She Is”

Say my name and I will live forever....Sheila. Lela. Jocelyn. Abbi. These are the women hidden within the statistics of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic in the U.S. Meet them. See them. Say their names. They are “Who She Is”.

Who She Is tells the story of four individual women caught in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) epidemic. By bringing these missing women to life on screen, through animation and first-person storytelling, the documentary aims to humanize the people behind the statistics. Audiences will learn each woman's loves and losses and will come to know their story. Through these women, the documentary hopes to shine a light on the wider MMIW epidemic and gendered violence.

Jordan Dresser

Jordan Dresser is the Co-Director and Co-Producer of Who She Is. From 2020-2022 he served as the Chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council leading Tribal affairs on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Jordan is also a journalist, filmmaker and through the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office plays a key role in repatriation of Tribal artifacts and ancestral remains. Who She Is is Jordan’s 2nd collaboration with Caldera Productions and his directorial debut.

Sophie Barksdale

Sophie Barksdale is the Co-Director and Co-Producer of Who She Is. She has been a producer with Caldera Productions since 2016, having relocated from Australia. During her time with Caldera, Sophie has had a hand in all the Caldera films, including Co-Producing the Heartland Emmy nominee, “The State of Equality” in 2020 and the Independent Lens broadcasted feature, “Home From School: The Children of Carlisle” in 2021. Who She Is is Sophie’s directorial debut and first foray in animated film.

 

Links: 

Wyoming Statewide Missing Persons Report

Who She Is Trailer

Victim Services

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Emy DiGrappa (00:01):

Welcome to Winds of Change. I am your host, Emy DiGrappa.

(00:05):

Winds of Change is centered on the people, places, history and stories of Wyoming. We talk about identity, community, land, and the winds of change, and what it means to thrive in our state. How does someone identify with wide open spaces and big personalities in small towns? Listen to folks from across our state share their connection to Wyoming and home, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities.

(00:50):

This episode follows our conversation with Kara Chambers and Dr. Emily Grant, when they spoke and shared with us Wyoming's missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic. Just to recap, Kara Chambers, director of the Division of Victim Services in the Wyoming Attorney General's office. She oversees victims' services for the state and spearheads both the human trafficking task force and the Wyoming Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force. And Dr. Emily Grant has extensive experience working at state, community and tribal levels to address topics such as human trafficking and the missing and murdered Indigenous persons epidemic. So following that episode, we spoke with Sophie Barksdale and Jordan Dresser, filmmakers and producers. Sophie and Jordan are both co-directors and co-producers of the newly released film documentary, Who She Is. Who She Is tells the story of four individual women caught in the missing and murdered Indigenous women's epidemic. Through the film, we learned from US Department of Justice that Native American women are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average. Listen to their journey and passion for filmmaking, social justice, and the stories from the Wind River Reservation.

Sophie Barksdale (02:19):

My journey to filmmaking has been almost a lifelong ambition. My father is a composer and he has composed music for documentaries, films, predominantly for theater, and so I really grew up in the theater. My mother is an English teacher and a librarian so I grew up around so many books, and so storytelling and the importance of storytelling has really been ingrained into me from such a young age. And I have admired filmmaking as an art form for a really long time, so I started working with film festivals. Actually, I worked for the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival in Australia, and really at the back end, working in a human resources department, but seeing how a film festival comes together, how programming happens, and so that was a fabulous introduction to film festivals. And then I since worked in film festivals here in America and then over in Ireland when I lived in Ireland.

(03:24):

And when I was in Ireland, then I was lucky enough to work with Screen Island, and I was working in part with their productions department, so reading all the scripts coming in, watching all the dailies, watching all the rough cuts come in and reading all their funding applications with the production department, the funding department. So really experiencing that backend first and seeing the unglamorous side of filmmaking, but the really hard work that goes in on that backend. So you cannot make a film on your own. You can, but I think you're going to get a great film and you're not going to have a wonderful experience. But as a filmmaker, I didn't know how to make an animation, but we found someone who did, and we found someone who's also a fine artist who did and he created beautiful artwork and then was able to animate that for us.

(04:22):

You don't need to know how to do everything when you're filmmaking. You need to build your dream team, and I think that's one of the most exciting and most rewarding pieces of filmmaking, is you are working with phenomenal teams and creating relationships within your team and then your subjects. It's such a wonderful process.

(04:41):

So Who She Is is a story of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Wyoming. The film focuses on four individual women's stories. Initially, we thought we would have interviews interspersed with scholars and people on the ground, but we really felt like that took away from the women's stories. So we worked with an Ojibwe artist, Jonathan Thunder, to create the images of these women who were no longer with us, to bring them to life on screen. And we chose this watercolor style of animation to really highlight the beauty and the femininity of each of these women.

(05:21):

First and foremost, we wanted audiences to connect with how beautiful each individual is and what a loss this is to our community that they are no longer with us. So we chose stories from different decades, and really, to highlight that this is not new, that it has been going on for a really long time. The film came about because of the MMIP Task force, the governor's MMIP Task Force. When they created the task force, they knew they wanted to data collect and see what the current status of missing women in Wyoming was, but they also wanted to do an art project. And both the governor's inter-tribal liaison from the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho tribes both said, "Jordan Dresser is the man you need to talk to." So I remember very clearly sitting in a room with Jordan as he said, "I've had this conversation with Kara Chambers, who's the director of Victim Services, and I told her I want to do a documentary. This is how I want to do it. I want to tell these women's stories as how they lived here, not how they left this earth."

(06:32):

And that was just so powerful and I think really hit home with me, and I said to him, "I'm your person. You tell me how you want to do this and we'll make it happen." And so he and I spent so much time talking about how we wanted to hold community meetings with both tribes on the reservation and invite people to come and tell their stories, and invite them to participate. And we unfortunately couldn't tell everybody's stories so we chose quite specifically these ones to cover those four decades, and because we wanted to show that there are so many reasons women go missing and there are so many reasons that women are murdered, we didn't want them all to be the same story. Because I think what we're learning as we look more and more at this issue is such a web. There's not one reason, which means there's not one solution, and so suddenly, it feels very overwhelming.

(07:33):

And I think we have to realize that men go missing too, absolutely, Indigenous men, and they go missing and are murdered, but it's often for different reasons. Women, it's gendered violence. Indigenous women going missing and being murdered, it's gender violence, and the UN has recognized violence against women as one of the biggest human rights violations in the world. It's happening here in Wyoming. So really drilling down into that, but we also wanted to invite audiences into the lives of these women so that there is that sense of connection and that sense of knowing these women, so that you leave the film not just feeling like it is this tangled web and I can't do anything, but you leave feeling like, "I know these four women. I've invited them into my home. I've invited them into my life."

(08:25):

I know and love them now, and so now I care about this issue more. Often, you see in the newspapers, if an Indigenous woman is murdered, you hear about her drug addiction or you hear about the violence. The violence and the blood is highlighted, and she was found face down, and she was... We hear all the gory details, whereas if a beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed girl goes missing, we just hear about her dog she loved and what a shame and a loss to the community. The language that is used in the newspapers and the media are so different when you compare them, and we really wanted to acknowledge that and move through it.

(09:11):

And I think we've had some of the families say to us that this has been incredibly healing for them, to sit down as a family and talk about what happened. I think when you're in the moment and it's happening, it's so raw and you're dealing with law enforcement and you're dealing with the courts, and maybe you're dealing with three different types of law enforcement, depending on where the crime happened and who was involved. Were they native? Were they non-native? Were they on the reservation when it started but they went off the reservation when it finished? All those law enforcement are then involved, and so these families are having to navigate really complex jurisdictional issues. There's not one point of contact. This is so traumatic for them. This is their loved ones that they will never see again. And Jordan had said to me way back at the beginning of making this, "Maybe this is a way to gift back to the families a piece of their loved ones that they can have forever, because film is forever."

(10:14):

I think it was very moving and I was so grateful, the way we did the narration, we used a sister or we used a granddaughter. So Sheila's sister, Tammy, voices Sheila in the film. Jocelyn's sister, Tiana, voices Jocelyn in the film. Abby's granddaughter, Tiara, voices Abby, and Leila, well, I won't... Spoiler. But I think having family members be that voice for their loved one, I know that was really hard for the narrators. We had to ask them to come into the studio and read through the script, and you know what this is like. Here's your short piece. You're going to do it three times, then we're going to move on and you're going to do it three times, and they have to relive each piece and it's so emotional. And it just took such courage and fortitude, these women narrating their stories. I get goosebumps every time I think about it, how brave these women are to come back and voice their loved ones.

(11:17):

And then having Jonathan Thunder create... We started creating what we call style frames, so they're still frames of what we think the characters will look like. So we gathered archival material, family photos, if there was videos, and we collated all of that and found some beautiful moments that we were able to replicate in the animation, but really, just trying to take the essence of who each woman is and hand that to Jonathan and say, "This is what we're envisioning." And he came back with this beautiful artwork, and then we began to animate from there. We brought on Tony Elmore from Fort Atelier in Casper right at the end. We were getting quite down to the wire and animation takes a really long time, and so Tony was able to come on and help us with the animation. Jonathan was just focusing on the artwork. It's hard labor and they both did such a great job, and we just think it's beautiful and we think every woman is beautiful and so we're thrilled by how it came out.

(12:23):

And something that I think we were excited to do was bring in that live action piece and using the jingle dress dancer to tie each piece together. The jingle dress dance is a healing dance, and we had this red dress made specifically for the shoot, which we've gifted to the governor's office for the governor specifically. So the red symbolizes these missing women, but the jingle dress is the healing part and we wanted that healing through line all the way through the film, just to keep that peace in the back of our minds, but also actually at the forefront for people who understand that reference, and hopefully, we'll gain something from that.

(13:02):

Again, to bring it full circle, what's the intention of making the film? To raise awareness.We just want as many eyes on this as possible so that people leave with that connection with these women so they do care about this issue, because this issue is not going away anytime soon if we don't take action as individuals. And so this year, for me, it's very important that we get the film out there in as many places as possible and in front of as many eyes as possible, because this matters and we can't do it alone. And we have to all come together as communities and we have to take ownership of what's going on in our own communities, and we have to advocate. You come from a platform where you can bring something to the table. I come from somewhere that I can bring something to the table. We have to do it together.

Jordan Dresser (13:56):

I got started in filmmaking in 2011. I was approached to help work with this documentary film called What Was Ours, and I initially started my work with that one, just help them meet people and whatnot and it just slowly morphed into more work and then me being a part of the film. And that was directed by Matt Haynes and it's a beautiful film, and we did great work. And so it just springs from there. So I worked with him in another thing, a whole bunch of that, and then this is the fourth one.

(14:25):

I worked a little bit with Wyoming PBS on a film, a few different episodes of Wyoming Chronicle here and there, but that was just really it. I met Kara Chambers a few years ago and she approached me and asked, said, "Would you be willing to work on this project?" And I said, "Yes," but then I pitched it to the production company called Their Productions, and Sophie was a natural fit for it. So she came along and we both did it together. We co-directed, we wrote everything together, and so that's just how those conversations started.

(14:56):

We had a public meeting back in late 2019 and we invited families of different people to potentially come out and be a part of this project, so it just snowballed from there. Unfortunately, so many people have been touched by this topic, so we were able to get quite a bit of different people together to work on it. A lot of documentaries, sometimes they can be just talking heads, and I wanted it to be about the women and their lives and what they went through, so that truly was what drove the whole film.

(15:27):

And it's about each woman, that's what it's about. I think people process grief in different ways, so some people are in denial about it, some people are angry about it, some people are constantly sad about it, but eventually, some people accept it and they know they have to move on with their lives. And I think for them, this is a way for them to not only honor their family who passed on that way, but also to gain closure for themselves. I go back to my journalism days where it's really getting to know a community and getting to know people in various different ways, and I think that there's a power in telling a person's story, because sometimes, it never happens for those people. And we all have different stories to tell, which is about the human experience, and I think that it's an honor to be able to tell their stories. It's about being seen and heard, and that's what it essentially comes down to.

(16:20):

Documentary work, it's really a passion project because you don't make a lot of money off of it. You barely break even, so you've really got to be passionate about the project itself and be willing to work really hard for that. So yeah, I see myself doing that as well. I see myself doing more writing still and just keeping that muscle flexed, and also working on other projects as well.

(16:45):

The hope or the dream is for it to continue to travel around and have conversations. Like I said, it's not just limited to Wind River. It's everywhere. This is a problem everywhere, and different communities have their own unique challenges. There's various different events. Violence Against Women, they had a tribal consultation back in September and that was in Alaska, and that was an opportunity for tribes to get on record and express what their needs were. So that was one that was well attended by tribes from all across the country, and basically, it was just three days of just testimony. So that's one.

(17:19):

I'm on the Not Invisible Act Commission. It's made up of over 40 different individuals from across the country, so we meet periodically and we get to hear each other's stories and suggestions and ideas.

(17:31):

I think it always starts with yourself first, and I think you have to have clear goals of what you want to do and figure out a strategic plan on how to achieve. There seems to be just a different movement of people wanting to talk about things more openly and be willing to. The tribes used to not really be into filming, but now, they're accepting it because they see the value of it and in telling our stories, so I think over time, things evolve and change for the better.

Emy DiGrappa (18:05):

Thank you for listening. I'm executive producer, Emy DiGrappa. Winds of Change is brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, our co-hosts and all the people who generously share their stories and their time. For more information, go to thinkwhy.org. Subscribe and never miss a show.