St. Paul native explores family history, and land ownership issues, in Twin Cities PBS documentary

22March 2021

Rita Davern wanted to tell her family’s story.

“I was interested in my family history for quite a while,” said Davern, a 72-year-old lifelong St. Paul resident. “I did a lot of digging and putting some pieces together and, six years ago, my niece said: ‘You really need to do something. Let’s make a film. I’ll help you.’ ”

Davern started taking filmmaking classes at St. Paul’s FilmNorth, where she met Melody Gilbert, who was teaching a course on documentaries. Davern eventually got to the point where she had assembled 20 minutes of footage that was enough to get the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Foundation to give her a grant to finish the work. She asked Gilbert if she would collaborate on the project with her.

“Originally, Rita asked me to make a film about her great grandmother and her ancestors,” Gilbert said. “But I saw something in Rita — she had something more she wanted to say. She would get emotional, in the Minnesota way, and would clam up and try not to cry. Eventually, I told her, ‘I think this film is about you.’ ”

After plenty of what Gilbert called “harassing” – which Davern more charitably referred to as “coaching” – Davern agreed. The result, the documentary “Stories I Didn’t Know,” is airing numerous times on Twin Cities PBS, with an online post-film discussion planned for 5 p.m. March 28.

Gilbert and Davern share the directing credit for the film, which debuted at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival last May. It follows Davern as she traces her family’s history and finds herself coming to terms with the fact that her ancestors moved to Minnesota from Ireland and took over land once claimed by Native Americans.

“Rita really did not want to be featured in the film,” Gilbert said. “I think she wanted to delve into some painful things, but didn’t know how to do it. She’s very brave to take us on this journey with her. That’s not easy.”

During the process, Davern befriended Dakota educator Ramona Kitto Stately, who plays a sizable role in the film. The pair bonded, in part, over their sons. Stately’s son is featured in the documentary. Davern adopted her late son from South Korea. At one point, Davern addresses her own thoughts about what it meant to take her son out of his own homeland and the ethical issues surrounding it.

“It was Melody, again, who said he belongs in this story. I had to face raising him and what it was like for him to be raised in this situation. I’ve heard from so many adoptees who thanked me and said, ‘I’ve never seen any white person acknowledge this. It’s really important.’ That made me feel good.”

Elsewhere, Davern raises issues about land rights and ownership with her brother, leading to an extremely Minnesotan discussion where little actually ends up being verbalized, but it’s clear where each person stands.

“There was so much restraint,” Davern said with a laugh. “It’s amazing what was being said but wasn’t being said.”

Davern opens up on camera throughout “Stories I Didn’t Know” and shares a sometimes surprising amount of her life and her beliefs.

“Stories I Didn’t Know” was featured in the MSPIFF virtual film festival. (Courtesy MSPIFF)

“There were many times I fought with Melody and told her she couldn’t use something,” Davern said. “But her coaxing and coaching helped. I realized that vulnerability is what people respond to and learn from. So I thought, ‘why not?’ I took a chance. It’s still humiliating and I sometimes stay up at night worrying about it. But I’ve got nothing but a good response from people who’ve seen it. They appreciate that I’m willing to show those kind of feelings.

“When you’re talking about history, you have to face the whole history and include all the partners in the story. Most of us don’t know the whole story, we’ve got a lot to learn. I find it tremendously … I don’t know if I want to say ‘healing.’ But I’m happy to know the whole story rather than not know it all or pretend things didn’t happen. The time seems to be right to be having these discussions.”

Davern also completed the film she set out to make in the first place. “Burren Girl” reaches back more than 1,000 years into her family’s history. It debuted at the Twin Cities Film Fest in October and is currently playing the festival circuit.

The pair have also hosted screenings of “Stories I Didn’t Know” for schools, churches and groups working on issues related to racism.

“That’s been really fun and interesting, to see these young adults engage with this story,” Davern said. “I really don’t think you need to be Irish or Native American or Minnesotan to appreciate this. It’s for everybody.”

“Stories I Didn’t Know” airs at 9 p.m. Monday, 3 a.m. Tuesday, 4 p.m. March 28 and 12 a.m. March 29 on TPT 2. It will also be shown at 7 p.m. March 25 and 1 a.m. and 3 p.m. March 26 on TPT Life and at 9 p.m. March 31 and 3 a.m. April 7 on TPT MN.

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