Missing from Fire Trail Road [Tribeca Festival Review]

I spent a large chunk of Missing from Fire Trail Road feeling horrified. It is absolutely unfathomable that so little is being done about the problem addressed in Sabrina Van Tassel’s film, which world premiered in the Spotlight Documentary section of the 2024 Tribeca Festival. I was vaguely aware of the fact that a disproportionate number of Native American women go missing in the United States every year, but the movie lays out the details in a manner that leaves you shellshocked.

The center of the film is the disappearance of Mary Ellen Johnson Davis from the Tulalip Reservation on Thanksgiving 2020. Her family members continue to hold out hope that she’s alive, despite total radio silence. Gaining the courage to start asking tougher questions of the people she hung out with, they learn a number of sad, disturbing truths about what might possibly have led to her vanishing. Using Davis’s case as a launching pad, Van Tassel goes on to include stories of other Native women who were never found, and some whose bodies were found in gruesome places, including stuffed inside an old refrigerator that was tossed out in a remote location.

Activist/indigenous leader Deborah Parker and U.S. Secretary to the Interior Deb Haaland are among those helping to provide viewers with relevant information about the problem. Much of it stems from the fact that reservation police officers don’t have jurisdiction over certain types of crimes. That, in turn, leads to what one interviewee describes as a game of hot potato, where everyone passes the buck to everyone else. As a result, reservations have become lawless places where predators can rape and/or kill women without much fear of being prosecuted for their crimes.

Appalling treatment of Native people is, sadly, nothing new. In its revelatory final half-hour, Missing from Fire Trail Road delves into a piece of history the government has tried to keep hidden – namely, the forced placement of Native children in “boarding schools” designed to teach them to become servants to white people. In these schools, their heritage was essentially erased, leading to scores of Indigenous peoples who didn't know their tribe’s language or customs. The film ties this into the disappearance of women by pointing out the long history of marginalizing Native Americans.

You can feel the sadness of Mary Ellen Johnson Davis’s family as they search for answers they know will probably never come. In addition to that sadness, you’ll feel anger. Something needs to be done. Hopefully, Missing from Fire Trail Road will ignite a conversation that leads to meaningful action. All the women featured in this harrowing, vital documentary are fully aware that they could be next – and, statistically speaking, some of them will be.

Missing from Fire Trail Road

Missing from Fire Trail Road is unrated, but contains disturbing material related to murder and sexual assault. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.

© 2024 Mike McGranaghan