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“Daughter of a Lost Bird” is Brooke Swaney’s first feature documentary. She recently made the Blacklist’s Inaugural Indigenous List with “Tinder On The Rez” along with her co-writer Angela Tucker. She also produced “Bella Vista” (International Film Festival Rotterdam), “Sixty Four Flood” (PBS & PBS Digital), and the podcast “All My Relations” with Matika Wilbur and Dr. Adrienne Keene. In 2019, she was selected to participate as a NATIVe Fellow at the European Film Market/Berlinale. Swaney is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation and a descendent of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

“Daughter of a Lost Bird” is screening at the New York edition of the 2021 Human Rights Watch Film Festival. This year’s fest is digital due to COVID-19, and runs May 19-27.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

BS: Filmed over the course of seven years, “Daughter of a Lost Bird” is an intimate journey with Kendra Mylnechuk Potter as she reconnects with her birth mother and her indigeneity.

Kendra and I met when I was casting for a short fiction film, “OK Breathe Auralee.” Later, I learned that her background as a transracial Native adoptee echoed her character in the short film. It was an odd coincidence.

The more that I got to know Kendra, her yearning to know more and feel more comfortable claiming an identity that had been taken from her — by no fault of her own, or her adoptive family, or even her birth family, but rather by larger systemic and thus more insidious forces — it felt like this was a story we couldn’t ignore.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

BS: I have always been fascinated by adoption stories — especially thinking about nature vs. nurture or how the person you can grow up to be depends on your socio-economic situation. In some ways, I can identify with adoptees because I didn’t meet the majority of my dad’s side of my family until I was about 19 years old.

My mom’s side of the family, like most Native families, is so good at genealogy, tracking down relatives, and speaking about “family secrets.” It felt drilled into me at a pretty young age that knowing who you are and who you come from is supremely important.

From my own family, I know that keeping Native families connected is a big struggle because of the U.S. government’s policies to dismantle and disrupt us — and unfortunately, it echoes across generations today.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

BS: After watching the film, I hope people will have a better understanding of how removing Indigenous kids from their communities has an effect. Not just on the child, but also on the Indigenous community that they come from. Kids like Kendra and [her biological mother] April have rights to belong to their tribe, to inherit specific rights and gifts — and those things should not be taken away from them.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

BS: Making a film over such a long period of time can be a bit of a challenge. Funding at times inhibited our ability to move forward quickly, but at the same time, if we had finished the film a year or even two years earlier, we would have missed some of the most impactful moments towards the end of the film. So, Creator was looking out for us in that way, and the film happened the way it was meant to.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made. 

BS: After Humanities Montana gave us our first substantial amount of funding, we got major funding from Vision Maker Media. Without both of these organizations and their dedication and belief in our project, there is no way we would have been able to make or finish this film.

We put out so many grant applications that I lost track of all the places that we applied, and oftentimes, it was hard to get the rejections, but those few glimmers of support over the years really kept us afloat. Thank you Women in Film, Prop, VMM, and HM! And now Nia Tero is helping us with our Impact campaign. We are so grateful.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

BS: I’ve always been bummed out about the lack of Indigenous representation — outside of stereotypes or western Hollywood Indians — in the mainstream media and collective consciousness.

When I was a psychology undergrad, I did a small research project about it. That was when I really started thinking about how I could get in the industry. A good friend encouraged me to apply to the best program in the country, and so I ended up going to NYU Tisch for grad school.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

BS: Best advice: Keep pushing onward and stay strong.

Worst advice: Just make mainstream movies. I don’t really know what that meant, but I was pretty sure it was to tell me to not tell Indigenous stories.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

BS: I mean, I don’t even know where to start here. I think it’s about building a team that you trust, that you know has your back and you have theirs. And reach out for help. People love giving their opinion and advice! I know I do!

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

BS: One of my favorite films of all time is “Cléo from 5 to 7” by Agnès Varda. Just imaging her in a really macho group of guys making such a masterpiece is always an inspiration.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

BS: The pandemic has been one of the busiest times of my life. Since I couldn’t really do much outside of the house, I just buckled down and worked — worked on finishing the film, took opportunities as they came, quit my day job at the ACLU of Montana to focus on the film, submitted to opportunities for the fiction side of my work. Just kept grinding. I also watched a lot of TV, movies, and docs.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

BS: Indigenous people should not be an afterthought. We should be the first thought, especially when making films about us. If you are a Non-Native filmmaker, how are you bringing in and working with an Indigenous filmmaker on your team? With bigger productions, do you have Indigenous talent above-the-line? If you don’t, you should.

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