On Set: “Who She Is” remembers missing and murdered Indigenous women

Co-director Sophie Barksdale speaks about missing murdered Indigenous women with Jeff Counts in advance of film screening at the Center for the Arts.
Hughes family holding a photo of Sarah Hughes. (Zoe Friday)

by | May 1, 2023 | Film & TV

On May 2nd at the Center for the Arts, the League of Women Voters of Wyoming will present a documentary film about missing and murdered Indigenous women. Here to talk about the film and its critically important theme is one of the co-directors, Sophie Barksdale of Caldera Productions.

COUNTS/ONSET: Missing and murdered Indigenous women is unfortunately not a new or niche topic. In fact, I saw a film at Sundance back in January called Fancy Dance that addresses it from a fictional perspective. But it’s very, very real. Could you set the stage for this conversation with some of the data?

BARKSDALE: Look, internationally, the United Nations recognizes violence against women as the most common human rights violation in the world. The reports for that, I think here in America specifically, you know, nationally, four in five Indigenous women experience violence in their lifetimes. One in three Indigenous women are sexually assaulted. Indigenous homicide rates in Wyoming are higher than the national Indigenous homicide rates. And, you know, these figures are overwhelming. And I think people find those statistics so vast and hard to comprehend that they just walk away. For us, this film is a way to dive into the lives of these Indigenous women and move away from the statistics.


ONSET: Because of the subject matter, these stories, in many cases are about women who are no longer with us. So you’ve had to rely upon their families to speak for them. Have you found them to eager to share their memories and help raise awareness of this topic?

BARKSDALE: Yes, absolutely. I think, you know, coming out of the MPP task force released a report in January of 2021 that really highlighted how Indigenous stories are portrayed in the media. It always highlights the violence. It highlights if there’s drug addiction or alcoholism, whereas if a white woman is to go missing, we hear about her family, who is going to miss her and what she used to love to do. And so there’s a real discrepancy in how women are portrayed. So their families were really, I think, keen to tell their loved ones stories, to reclaim that narrative, to bring to the forefront not how she left this earth, but who she is. And we wanted it to be who she is, not who she was, because she’s still with these families. You know, that presence is still felt and that loss will ripple throughout the community forever.

ONSET: I want to talk for a second about the look and feel of the film, which I loved. I loved the journal entry style of the narration, and the animation is so stylish. What’s it like to work with animators instead of cinematographers?

BARKSDALE: Look, I mean, it just requires a different headspace when you go into it, and it requires you to really think and focus on that, like look and feel from the get-go. And it was wonderful working with the families. You know, we spent hours going through photographs and videos of each woman, depending on when she passed away. Some women, we don’t we just had two photographs of Abby Washakie, unfortunately. But the process of finding her favorite color and having a motif for each woman, whether that was linked to her Indian name or something in her life, that meant something to her. So delving into that and finding each woman’s voice visually, that sort of visual vernacular was an incredible experience, totally different from live action.

ONSET: These stories, as you mentioned earlier, are Wyoming stories. So as Wyoming people ourselves, what can we do to help with this?

BARKSDALE: Look, I think showing up, you know, May 5th is coming up. It’s the official MMIW Awareness Day (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women). So showing up to events that people are hosting. For me, there’s a march here in Riverton on May 6th. On May 5th, we’re going to be part of some events at Arapahoe High School. So, you know, showing up. And I think just really realizing that you need to have Indigenous women at the table when you’re seeking solutions.

ONSET: Well, Sophie Barksdale, thank you so much for making such a thoughtful statement on this important issue. And thanks again for being on On Set.

BARKSDALE: Thank you, Jeff. I appreciate it.

Past coverage of this film and issues around missing and murdered Indigenous women can be found here.


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About Jeff Counts

Before moving to Jackson in 2019, Jeff spent five years reviewing movies as co-host of the public access television program "Big Movie Mouth-Off." When not focused on film, Jeff writes about opera and co-hosts the classical music interview podcast "Ghost Light."

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