By James Lindorf
Director Rachel Harrison Gordon is an MFA/MBA candidate at NYU Tisch/Stern and a Sundance 2020 Blackhouse Fellow. “Broken Bird” her first film was completed as part of her curriculum at school, and had its World Premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. “Broken Bird” is a semi-autobiographical tale focusing on a biracial girl struggling with her culture and identity, days away from her Bat Mitzvah. Originally scheduled to have its North American Premiere at SXSW Film Festival 2020, before screening at Aspen ShortsFest and many other festivals. Unfortunately, due to the Coronavirus outbreak, these festivals have been canceled or postponed. “Broken Bird” instead took part in the ‘Prime Video presents the SXSW 2020 Film Festival Collection; a collaboration between the festival and Amazon. It is slated to appear in at least two more film festivals this year, more details can be found on the film’s website.
Birdie, a biracial girl raised by her Jewish mom, spends a rare day with her father while preparing for her Bat Mitzvah. While sharing a meal Birdie overcomes her doubts, and decides to risk inviting him back into her life. Birdie confronts her relationships with her parents and what independence means as she steps into adulthood on her own terms.
Red Carpet Crash (RCC): Being that this is a semiautobiographical project did that make the casting of Birdie extra difficult?
Rachel Harrison Gordon (RHG): I met so many wonderful Black women who could have played the role of Birdie successfully. They each had their own experiences and perspectives that deserve to be captured on screen. I am so honored they feel connected to the film, and am grateful they (and their families) took the time to read the script and audition.
When I met Indigo Hubbard-Salk and her family, I was instantly reminded of my own experiences, and felt that she would be the best fit with whom to collaborate in the telling of this story, including the specificity of being biracial and Jewish. When we met, I felt warmth in her striking presence, and recognized she had exactly what the role needed: poise, a POV of her own, bold curiosity and kindness.
So yes, casting was extremely difficult, because there were so many talented people. At the same time, I instantly felt connected to Indigo, and quickly knew she was perfect.
(RCC): Can you talk a little about the importance of the scenes where Birdie is having her hair done and how that may have been influenced by which parent she was connecting with more at that time?
My memories of getting my hair done is fraught with trauma and disappointment. I’ve been cursed out by hair stylists who have blamed me for making them late for their next appointment, I’ve left salons with bald patches and shame, and was turned away by a stylist at a “curly hair specialist” who gave me a free bottle of conditioner in consolation (to hold my tears?). I know I am not the only one who has had these experiences.
When Birdie is getting her hair done, one can be led to believe that she is in her own home, surrounded by her Black family who knows how to care for her hair. I wanted that scene to capture the intimate, relaxing aspects of having someone’s fingers run through your sudsy scalp, but also the toughness and thoroughness of orchestrating a particular hairstyle that I believe aims to replicate white hair and white standards of beauty. I fried and added chemicals to my hair almost my entire life to achieve this look, but finally did the “big chop” to go natural during my senior year in college.
Knowledge of how to care for your hair, and how to embrace one’s Blackness, is often transferred from family, from our ancestors. Growing up, there was a huge disconnect for me, which still lingers. My white mom did her best to seek people who would make me feel special, and I remember the relief when she found a salon nearby who had a Black hairstylist. I am often at salons where there is a language barrier preventing us from engaging on a deep level, but have still felt reassurance one might feel at “home,” in safe hands.
I also remember my mom defending me, and herself, against racist comments from white country club members who objected to my participation in a tennis clinic due to the beads at the ends of my cornrows, which I got to emulate Venus and Serena Williams, my heroes. Unfortunately, these negative experiences taught me that my hair was a parasitic mess no one could “handle,” rather than a crown I should be proud of. I am almost 30 and have just now started to grasp the routine and hair care I need and deserve thanks to Black women who have guided me via YouTube and across the internet.
(RCC): What was your filming and post production schedule like, and does anything come to mind that was surprising more or less difficult than you anticipated?
Filming took place over 5 packed days at the end of December. Post production involved lots of edits and feedback, including a grueling critique in front of all the NYU Tisch Grad Film professors (as all students do). Based on the encouragement of my peers, I continued working on it to submit it to festivals.
It was surprisingly difficult to let go of certain concepts that were cluttering the narrative. Broken Bird is my first film, and I was making this movie like I might never make another one, packing everything I wanted to say into it. It took some time, but I realized that I will make more movies, and find other ways to convey ideas that are important to me.
(RCC): How much time and struggle is there during the writing of the film to make sure you convey emotion and can share the story you want to tell while knowing you have less than 10 minutes of screen time?
The editing phase is where I really had to confront that less-is-more, that I couldn’t delve into each character’s background and POV. Broken Bird is about a moment in this young woman’s life, and I had to trim aspects of the world around her, including an explanation for what was motivating her parents that could perhaps “redeem” them, but the ending needed to convey the message I wanted about resilience and acceptance, openness and trust.
The film took many shapes. There was a 20-minute version, a 12-minute version, an 8-minute version– each had their own flaws. The final 10 minute version allowed me to present a self-contained story where each part had a purpose, it flowed well, and it said everything I wanted to say, as simply as I could say it.
(RCC): Do you think Birdie learned something from this situation that she can carry with her? Or, was It more about her discovering a way to have a Bat Mitzvah more akin to who she is now and who she will be as a woman, meaning next time she will have to find a new way to find her space in mom or dad’s world?
Our family and loved ones can disappoint us so much, but we can only live through them if we have hope, and believe that there’s love there too. Humans are built from a collection of experiences, and Birdie wears this moment on her Bat Mitzvah day proudly and resiliently. As she enters adulthood, she learns that she can still believe in people even if they disappoint her; she can handle it, and can equip herself with what father has gifted her even if he’s not physically with her.
(RCC): So how jealous are your class mates that your first film was accepted to SXSW and is now streaming on Amazon for the world to watch?
Many of my classmates and friends were on the Broken Bird set bringing this story to life. They are part of my film family and I am grateful for school for bringing us together. Even students who had made me doubt the validity of my lived experiences congratulated me. Do I feel like all of my peers understand why Broken Bird is important? No.
School and the film industry and extremely competitive, catty atmospheres. Assessing art is arbitrary, and it is important to separate accolades like festival acceptances from more productive ways of external validation, such as the wide, “real” audience that school and Hollywood can make you forget about.
We are so grateful to the programmers at SXSW and the other festivals who recognized something special in this film, and have brought it to real people around the world.
(RCC): Do you have any plans for your next film at this point?
I am finishing the feature version of Broken Bird, where we learn more about the father’s background – that was one of the aspects of the story that made it difficult to get the short to actually be short.
I’m eager to get out there and film this, as well as some other shorts, that include aspects of women discovering their sexuality, their self-worth, their Blackness, and exploring code switching. In the meantime, when we can’t be around people, I’ve been trying to learn 3D animation software and Claymation. I always thought non-live action films conveyed powerful lessons about society and growing up, and hope to equip myself in this time with the ability to express myself that way.
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