Cherokee filmmaker Heather Rae’s new feature documentary, First Circle, shares the stories of families in Idaho struggling with drug abuse, the foster care system and the intrinsic human need for family.
“Family isn’t always blood family, sometimes family is the family that you create,” said Rae, the producer and director of First Circle. “It’s that first circle from which we all grow, learn and become human beings.”
For Rae, First Circle is a very personal film. Much of the documentary is about her family and their history of alcohol and drug abuse. Rae’s co-filmmakers Randy Redroad (Cherokee) and Russell Friedenberg, encouraged her to include this personal element.
“There was a lot of resistance on my part to do that,” Rae said. “Randy and Russell really worked with me to see that maybe there was more depth to the story if there was some kind of a personal connection between the filmmaker and the subject matter.”
Early in the film, Rae’s nephew, Tyler, is reunited with his mother, Dustine, after living with Rae’s mother for 10 years. Tyler had been in the foster care system since the age of 18 months, Rae said.
Dustine, who for years had struggled with drug addiction, had achieved one year of sobriety, and wanted Tyler back in her life. Rae’s brother and Tyler’s father, Neil, was a meth addict, and was serving time in prison. Despite her initial misgivings about including her family’s story in the film, Rae said that their experiences gave her the inspiration to make this film.
“Seeing the way in which the [foster care] system worked and the way my family struggled within the system... was all part of the [film’s] foundation for me,” she said.
First Circle incorporates other perspectives and stories to provide an expansive look at foster care and families with drug addiction. In addition to featuring a foster mom, Rae embedded with Jerrillea Archer, a now retired Ada County sheriff in Boise, Idaho, going on meth lab raids and visits to family homes that had been referred to the sheriff’s department based on questionable living conditions for the children living there.
On one such referral, Rae accompanied Archer to the home of David and Sherry and their children. Their home was referred to the sheriff’s department based on unsanitary living conditions for the children. Leaving the house, Archer remarked, “that house reeks of drugs.”
Two months later, Rae followed Archer on another investigation of David and Sherry’s home in response to a health and welfare referral prompted by the schools. David’s son Devon had not been attending school, and nothing had been done to correct his vision problems.
David, who had been hiding in a closet when the police entered the house, was arrested for defying a non-contact order between him and Sherry--a result of a prior domestic dispute. Evidence also suggested that he was using meth. Devon was placed into the foster care system for the second time.
“Jerrillea Archer is an extraordinary human being,” Rae said. “Are there times in which she is merciless in terms of her job? Absolutely, but when you see it day in and day out, you understand why she would be so unforgiving of abusive and neglectful parents.”
However, in the film, Archer expressed the emotional weight that comes with taking kids away from their parents.
“Once you start removing kids, it gets really ugly,” Archer said. “I know it’s the best thing, but I still feel bad taking people’s kids because I know how I would feel.”
First Circle is not the first documentary Rae has produced and directed. Her 2006 documentary, Trudell, appeared in over 100 film festivals, 60 theatre markets and aired on PBS’ Independent Lens Series and The Sundance Channel.
In her 20 years in the film industry, she has worked on numerous films, including over a dozen documentaries. Currently, Rae is in the San Francisco Bay Area producing a coming-of-age feature film entitled I Believe in Unicorns. It is the first feature film directed by Oakland filmmaker Leah Meyerhoff.
“I’ve found a niche to support first-time feature directors in getting their legs as filmmakers and storytellers,” Rae said. “That’s been a really enriching experience.”
Rae also has a production company, Appaloosa Pictures, that focuses on documentary films. The mission of Appaloosa Pictures is to “produce culturally and socially relevant media projects that facilitate civic dialogue, cultural understanding and responsible enterprise." Rae named the company after the horse breed known for beautiful leopard-like spotted coats.
“I’m really a horse person, and mountain mustangs are one of my own archetypes,” she said. “I grew up in central Idaho... I would see them [wild horses] all the time when I was riding my horse in the backcountry. It gave me a sense of being a part of the wild world.”
Written by Ben Kreimer.
Interviews conducted and edited by Ben Kreimer with support from Alex Epperson.