MISSING FROM FIRE TRAIL ROAD (Tribeca 2024) – Review by Leslie Combemale

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If you like fearless, determined, powerful women unafraid of confrontation and passionate about getting answers and making change, you’ll find much to connect with Sabrina Van Tassel’s documentary Missing From Fire Trail Road. For those whose interest is piqued, French American director and investigative journalist Van Tassel’s film tackles the subject of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women through the search for one such loss, Mary Ellen Johnson-Davis from the Tulalip Tribes in Washington State, who disappeared in 2020.

Nearly every subject interviewed or taking part in the documentary is an indigenous woman, and they include Deborah Parker, activist and ex-vice chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes, who also acts as executive producer on the project, and current chairwoman of the tribes, Teri Gobin. Three of Mary Ellen’s siblings, Nona, Gerry, and Lynette, are followed in their quest to find their sister, and they approach whomever they believe might have answers, regardless of the potential risk. Roxanne White, activist with the Missing Murdered Indigenous Women and People task force, herself a survivor of sexual assault, works tirelessly on behalf of families impacted by the MMIW epidemic.

What Sabrina Van Tassel’s documentary works to uncover and succeeds in explaining is the connections between events in history and what’s happening today. There is a strong through line between the mass removal of indigenous children placed in boarding schools, where they were dehumanized and masses of them died without explanation, and the lack of concern or ease with which indigenous folks are disappearing without a trace in the present day. Her interview subjects and archival footage show how they are connected, and it’s both horrific and fascinating. The women in the documentary also explain the laws in place that make it nearly impossible to prosecute white men who rape, murder, or abuse indigenous women on tribal lands.

There’s a lot to get through. The issues that have made it so dangerous for indigenous women have become increasingly problematic in the 21st century, if that’s even possible, given the genocide by colonizers of these tribes in the past. As a result, it does feel like trying to dig through centuries in only 100 minutes of screen time. The real anchor is Mary Ellen. Where is she? What has happened to her?

Though viewers may walk away infuriated and angered by the continued cycle of destruction and injustice towards indigenous women, Missing From Fire Trail Road does a great job of explaining the problem. It also shows there will be no lasting solutions until laws and the people in control who perpetuate ongoing colonialism and all the trauma it brings, change. Through it all, however, every woman featured in the film is a force that will inspire, and might even move every member of the film’s audience to take action.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website, CinemaSiren.com, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's TheCredits.org, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at AWFJ.org. Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.