‘Missing From Fire Trail Road’ Review: Missing Persons And Generational Trauma Set The Stage In This Simple, Powerful Doc [Tribeca]

Earlier this year, a documentary by the name of “Sugarcane” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and presented audiences with a harrowing look at the Canadian Indian residential school system and the emotional fallout stemming from years of horrendous abuse behind these doors. For those who may have bore witness to such a film, there’s an unusual sense of recurrence in the topics unveiled throughout “Missing From Fire Trail Road,“ one which starts as what could be initially presumed to be a simple look at a missing persons case from several years prior but eventually flows into strangely familiar territory.

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The framework does indeed focus on the former, with the disappearance of a Native American woman by the name of Mary Ellen Johnson-Davis four years earlier serving in this capacity as well as a transitory method into equally distressing issues. At the same time, the film does indeed live up to its title, but there’s far more lurking in the shadows, ready to be touched on slowly but surely. Mary Ellen’s family attempts their own investigation, conducting interviews with anyone who might know something, but never without an overarching feeling of gloom as they cling to the possibility of her eventual return while struggling to keep those negative emotions at bay. It’s no surprise that Mary Ellen’s husband becomes a suspect, though this theory begins to spring leaks as the film moves along. Periodic interviews with the FBI and various legal personnel show a divide in how such an investigation is handled from the other side of the coin. Unfortunately, Mary Ellen is but one of far too many Indigenous women who appear to have seemingly vanished over far too long a timespan, and it’s here that an unusual commonality begins to emerge.

Much like the horrors spoken of throughout “Sugarcane,” déjà vu rises to the surface at this point, following brief mentions and talking head interviews throughout the film’s first half, alluding to children who have forcibly been removed from the care of their families and placed into boarding schools. It’s not unlike the topics at the center of “Sugarcane,“ with recollections from families who both watched as their offspring fell victim to such a process alongside those who survived. No matter who might be occupying the screen at any given moment, it’s an emotional, grief-stricken rollercoaster as people discuss in town hall meetings or directly to the camera what they once underwent, and those who still pray for the safe return of their loved one despite the years gone by. Would the federal government assist more aggressively if those in peril were white? It’s a sad, undeniable fact.

Sabrina Van Tassel (“The State of Texas vs. Melissa“) has crafted something powerful, another entry on a never-ending list of films desperately trying to shed light on something more than worthy of further attention and which carries an impact as subtle as an asteroid strike capable of leaving an everlasting mark following merely one viewing. There are no frills in the structure, allowing the interviewees and periodic shots of the landscape surrounding this community to assist in telling the story and with an overwhelming sense of exhaustion as “Missing from Fire Trail Road” comes to a close. There are far too many stories as horrific as this, many more yet to be told, but with every filmmaker willing to turn the heads of an audience, there exists an undeniable feeling of something these families have in endless supply. Hope. [B+]