Review Fix chats with director Rachel Harrison Gordon, who shares her vision for her new short film, “Broken Bird.”
Review Fix: Why is the topic of this film important today?
Rachel Harrison Gordon: I sought films to explain adult circumstances I was experiencing when growing up, and found the characters able to express what people around me were afraid to discuss. Young people are capable of understanding a lot, they are going through a lot. It is important to me to present experiences on screen that broaden people’s assumptions of expected behavior.
I want to destigmatize and normalize “non-traditional” families, which are actually quite relatable. Being treated as an other made me retreat inside myself and not participate. I hate to see this happen to other kids. The intersectionality of the character should be presented as part of the new normal of media.
Review Fix: What inspired this film?
Gordon: I was always made aware that I was different. I remember being asked to weigh in on what was worse: Holocaust or slavery, as if my intersectionality made me the perfect judge. I felt a pressure to choose one side, and like I was always disappointing the other side of my life. I’ve always been interested in the idea of code-switching, and how different worlds shape one’s identity.
Review Fix: Why was ‘Broken Bird’ a perfect title for this short?
Gordon: The title critiques a harsh label often applied to people in situations like Birdie: the daughter of divorced parents affected by substance use, confused about where she fits in racially and spiritually. I remember internalizing whispers of my “broken” home to mean I was different.
Despite the film’s events, the characters’ stories are not ones of defeat. I hope this film shows the benefits of celebrating the complexities of people. Birdie grows up by leaving her nest, walking into a new chapter on her own.
Broken Bird celebrates the endurance of trust and the openness for hope. Good people – all people – fail in a million ways, but their impact can outweigh and outlast their weaknesses or mistakes. My father and I weren’t always close, but special moments – like the day Birdie spends with her father – grew into the relationship we have now. I wanted to explore the distance we can feel to our heritage and family, and the sudden closeness as well.
Review Fix: How difficult was this film to put together?
Gordon: This was my first film. I am impressed at my and my husband’s ability to figure it all out throughout the production process, and am so grateful for the incredible help the cast and crew provided – they made directing a joy that I’ll never forget.
This was also the first time I edited a narrative film. There were so many things I wanted to say, but cramming in more ideas diluted the overall story and made it less powerful. The closer we feel to the way Birdie experiences her world, the more we empathize with all the stuff that goes unsaid. The film went through many iterations before arriving at this point.
The semi-autobiographical nature of the story made me protective of it and of both my parents. Initially there was a sense that I had to make their screen time, or their emotional arcs “equal,” and I was hesitant to portray a Black man on screen who fails to keep his commitment. I wanted to capture the positive impact he has on Birdie, regardless, and to hint at hope of better days to come – that even without a perfect or idyllic family, a kid can confidently stride into adulthood on their own. In the end, Birdie’s story is triumphant. I hope that audiences recognize she is stronger and more confident as a result of being able to incorporate all of her family.
Review Fix: Tell me about the cast.
Gordon: Indigo Hubbard-Salk, who plays Birdie, was recommended to me by Spike Lee. I met with him to discuss an early draft of the script, and we watched some scenes from his Netflix show She’s Gotta Have It because he thought she would be a great fit. Indigo is also Jewish, and connected with the script in her own way.
I didn’t write with specific actors in mind, but ended up with the ideal situation. The character of Birdie is wise beyond her years, and my first meeting with Indigo confirmed she had the poise, wisdom, curiosity and spunk that fit the character.
I’m also proud overall that we cast people whose real lives mirrored aspects of their characters, including Bill AIken and Mel House. Mel’s son is biracial, and both Bill and Mel expressed compassion for each of the characters’ efforts to find connection in the course of everyday struggles.
Review Fix: What was it like, working with the actor, Chad L Coleman?
Gordon: I was connected to Chad L. Coleman – the actor playing Andre/Dad – via Tisch Professor Abigail Bess, who had worked with him on various stage projects. I remember being so nervous the first time I called Chad, but we had a long heart-to-heart, and every conversation since has felt like one I would have with family. He said the story spoke to him, that he saw his own life in it – that was one of the earliest affirmations that the project was starting to have the kind of impact we hoped it could.
Review Fix: What was the feeling like on set?
Gordon: Extremely loving, like a family. It’s what I’m proud of most of the film. This was my first film. I did everything I could to make an inclusive and fun-loving experience, and am so proud of the aura on set, the team’s closeness and eagerness to work together again. The fact that we created something that made kids laugh – that means something to people across the world – it’s the proudest I’ve ever felt, the fulfillment I was hoping for when I switched careers and pursued filmmaking a couple years ago. I am so, so grateful.
In some ways, it validated my whole life experience. It was cathartic for my family: My father realized that we made it through all the rough patches and that the light at the end wasn’t
fleeting. My mother got a window into my perceptions of growing up. Being on set was the most empowering and grounded I’ve ever felt.
Review Fix: How have the audiences been reacting to Broken Bird?
Gordon: One of my friends who attended a screening at the Berlin International Film Festival told me the movie spoke to her feelings on Germany and Blackness – that there are so few black/black-biracial people there and no “German Black identity” to identify with. A lot of Black Germans look to U.S. culture to process their feelings about black race and identity. She said that she imagines those little girls felt a certain kind of “homecoming” in watching the film, because it gets to the kind of tensions that a lot of biracial people likely feel growing up and because it’s so unique, especially for a German audience. That kind of feedback will impact me for the rest of my career.
It’s been wonderful to sit in the crowd as people are watching. They hold their breath, listening closely to see what’s going to happen. They laugh and dance, and then are a little stunned and emotional at the ending. I’m proud of the range of emotions people experience while watching.
Review Fix: What films have inspired it the most?
Gordon: My partner introduced me to A Serious Man – I love the Bar Mitzvah scene. I am also inspired by Sofia Coppola and Hal Ashby and Steve McQueen, and so many other artists. At the same time I am still disappointed by the lack of inclusive representation on screen by a great number of creators. Sometimes it is hard to pick stories that inspired Broken Bird because there are so few existing comparisons, which I hope is not the case one day.
Review Fix: Broken Bird was scheduled to screen at SXSW but due to the recent situation with the Coronavirus, it was cancelled. What are your thoughts on this?
Gordon: Health should be the focus and priority right now. We thank the SXSW programming team for accepting our film and for the continued support that they and other impacted festivals have shown us, and the filmmaker community coming together in new and exciting ways. While this is not how we envisioned the film’s festival run, we are extremely grateful to all the people who contributed to the film’s existence.
SXSW is a perfect festival for this film. My partner and I visited Austin recently on a road trip this summer when I learned about their “Keep things weird” motto, and think SXSW is a wonderful setting to debut a film about someone learning to embrace all components of their identity. We didn’t make the film to attend festivals, but have seen how important and exciting it is to build international communities of collaborators. We are so excited to share Broken Bird with audiences throughout the world. It is what coming home feels like.
Review Fix: What have you learned about yourself through this entire process?
Gordon: I’ve sought films to answer questions I had about my life, and they shaped my references and how I live. Film is a wonderful way to express and educate, I’m glad I have found the right tools for me.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Gordon: I am developing the feature version of this story, as well as working on other shorts. I also want to make music videos and commercials. Currently I am working on a VR immersive project about memory, incorporating aspects of our current covid-19 circumstances.
Review Fix: Anything else you’d like to add?
Gordon: I feel lucky to be making films and look forward to doing it more. Thank you for reaching out about the film!