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Missing From Fire Trail Road: Film Review

Missing From Fire Trail Road

Sabrina Van Tassel’s Missing From Fire Trail Road investigates the disappearance of one Indigenous woman, but ends up hitting a much deeper-rooted issue in the justice system.

Director: Sabrina Van Tassel
Genre: Documentary
Run Time: 101′
Tribeca Premiere: June 8-15, 2024
Release Date: TBA

Sabrina Van Tassel’s new documentary, Missing From Fire Trail Road, is an open exploration into the lack of justice seen in the cases of missing Indigenous women. The film, premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, looks at the staggering reality of the high rates of violence towards Indigenous women through the lens of a truly devastating missing person’s case. 

On the morning of November 25th, 2020, Mary Ellen Johnson-Davis was seen for the last time walking east along Fire Trail road on the Tulalip Reservation in Washington state. Her husband called her sisters two weeks later telling them they should contact local authorities to report their sister missing. After the call, he took off and moved to California. When Mary’s sisters, Nona and Gerry, called the authorities, her case became a “political hot potato.” It was tossed back and forth between tribal, local and government officials all claiming they did not have the proper jurisdiction to investigate what could have happened to Mary properly. To this day, Mary’s case is still open; she is still considered a missing person. 

Van Tassel’s documentary aims to crack open Mary’s case and find answers for those who remain hopeful they may be reunited with her one day, but the film ends up exploring the larger injustices the Indigenous population in the United States has faced. Through her highly detailed and emphatic investigation, Van Tassel creates a movie that will shock and anger viewers, as she effortlessly recreates the feelings of devastation and frustration Mary’s family members face on a daily basis. 

The film opens with the line “It’s a busy road… but nobody’s seen anything”, setting the tone for the entirety of Missing From Fire Trail Road. It’s not as if Mary’s case lacks evidence. From her husband’s history of erratic and violent behavior towards Mary to her family being able to track where her phone traveled on the day she went missing, there are plenty of leads to follow and angles to investigate. However, every authority figure Van Tassel interviews who has worked on the case seems dumbfounded about what could have happened, because the most minutiae details push the case outside their jurisdictions. 

Missing From Fire Trail Road does an incredible job of relaying the convoluted tales Mary’s family has been told about why she hasn’t been found yet. Van Tassel highlights the hypotheticals the authorities speak in, and immediately follows those shots with definitive statistics about the violence Indigenous women face, specifically at the hands of white men. Native women are even referred to as “easy prey,” because men are aware of the difficulties that come from trying to find definitive justice in cases of violence towards them. 

The rate of Indigenous Women being murdered across the United States is 10 times higher than any other ethnicity, according to the National Criminal Justice Training Center. The same study found four out of five native women experience violence, three out of five are raped, and two out of five are trafficked. These cases often consist only of victims and not convicted offenders, as tribal police hold no jurisdiction over non-native people, and the perpetrators are more often than not white men. While these statistics are shocking, even more shocking is the fact the FBI keeps no data or statistics on missing or indigenous women. 

The most potent aspect of the film hands down is Van Tassel’s framing. After interviews with Indigenous rights advocates like Deborah Parker talking about organizations like Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Van Tassel cuts to long shots of the young Indigenous girls who attend these rallies and talks. After having hard facts explained in detail about how there is seemingly no justice for Indigenous women at the hands of violent men, Van Tassel cuts to the young girls to show the audience exactly who this ongoing problem is going to impact most severely. 

The entire movie is an ode to women the FBI has not bothered to collect data on, because they have not bothered to further investigate their cases due to the murky nature of authoritative jurisdiction. Van Tassel doesn’t only focus on the women who have gone missing, though: she ensures that those who have survived the missing women have a chance to tell their stories. Mary’s sisters and community members play a vital role in telling her story and showing she is more than a statistic but a loving aunt and bright person who the justice system has completely and totally failed. 

Missing From Fire Trail Road
Missing From Fire Trail Road (FilmRise / 2024 Tribeca Film Festival)

Devastatingly, there is so much that could be explored when discussing the ways in which Indigenous communities have been wronged that at times the film gets carried far off into other directions. It’s understandable why Van Tassel would want to explore these various angles that intersect with the missing Indigenous women epidemic, but in terms of the film’s totality, it takes away from its focus more than it ends up contributing to it. Ultimately, the movie is most impactful when it stays on the topic of the missing women and the lack of justice for them and their families. 

Missing From Fire Trail Road is a documentary that will upset you to your core. Van Tassel is able to capture the anger and frustration and absurdity in Mary’s case with a natural ease. It’s the type of social justice film that makes you want to take action in some way, shape or form and completely opens your eyes to an issue that has a deep-rooted and longstanding history in American society. Mary’s sister Gerry puts it best in the movie when she says, “Every life should have the same value, but somehow, in America, it doesn’t”. While Mary might still be missing, this film ensures that she, nor any Indigenous woman whose story is similar to hers, will ever be forgotten. 

Missing From Fire Trail Road premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on June , 2024. Read our list of 15 films to watch at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival!

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