SXSW 2020: Rachel Harrison Gordon talks Broken Bird

Birdie looking to the sky with her goddess crown. Photo credit: Josh Therriault.

Writer-director Rachel Harrison Gordon spoke to Solzy at the Movies about Broken Bird ahead of the short film’s scheduled North American premiere.

Broken Bird stars Indigo Hubbard-Salk, Chad L. Coleman, Jari Jones, Bill Aiken, and Mel House.  Originally set to hold its North American premiere during the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, it’s unknown when the film will next screen.

I’ve gotten the go-ahead to run the my interview with Rachel Harrison Gordon, which appears as it would have run during SXSW.

Rachel Harrison Gordon
Rachel Harrison Gordon

How thrilled are you that Broken Bird is making its North American premiere at SXSW?

Rachel Harrison Gordon: It’s a dream and an honor. The idea that people will get tickets to watch this story is completely new and surreal.

This is the 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 the perfect place to debut a film about someone learning to embrace all components of their identity. It’s what coming home feels like.

The film recently held its world premiere in Berlin. How was the film received?

Rachel Harrison Gordon: The film premiered yesterday and had a second screening today. The audience has been very positive: they laugh, dance, and have lots of questions afterwards about my own connection to Judaism, the level of “acceptance” I felt/feel in the Jewish community, and they respond to the powerful imagery of a Black girl holding a Torah.

Much of the audience is younger, definitely the target audience for this coming-of-age story. It has been amazing to see kids react and convey to me that the film had importance and meaning to them. I am just so grateful my first project––one so close to my heart––is resonating with others. The feedback has revealed that the more specific I wrote, the more universal the film became.

This film is semi-autobiographical. How quickly were you able to write the script?

Rachel Harrison Gordon: I’ve been writing this story my whole life. Before I knew I would be any sort of storyteller, I captured moments in my life that I thought were cinematic. I never kept a diary, but have thousands of post-its and electronic notes of: scene-music pairings, dialogue ideas, unique exchanges, etc.

Composing the scenes came together quickly, as well as a feature-length version. Workshopping the short script in class (I’m currently an MFA/MBA dual degree candidate at NYU Tisch for Filmmaking and Stern Business School) was about refining the moments to make sure they were expressing what I wanted them to say, and realizing there was a home for all of these ideas, even if it wasn’t in this short film.

How did the cast come together?

Rachel Harrison Gordon: Indigo Hubbard-Salk, who plays Birdie, was recommended to me by Spike Lee. When I met with him to discuss an early draft of the script, we watched some scenes from his Netflix show She’s Gotta Have It, and he thought she would be a great fit for the role. Indigo is also Jewish, and connected with the script in her own way.

I was connected to Chad L. Coleman, the actor playing Andre/Dad via another 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.

What was the most challenging part of the production?

Rachel Harrison Gordon: Editing. There were so many things I wanted to say, but cramming in more ideas diluted the overall film and made it less powerful.

A related challenge was the semi-autobiographical nature of the story, which made me protective of both of my parents. Initially there was this sense that I had to make their screen time, or their emotional arcs “equal,” and I was hesitant to portray another Black man on screen who fails to keep his commitment. In the end, Birdie’s story is triumphant. I am confident that the audience recognizes she is stronger and more confident as a result of being able to incorporate all of her family.

Overall, how cathartic was the process?

Rachel Harrison Gordon: 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.

I’ve had many careers before filmmaking, and applied to my current dual degree program because I still couldn’t see myself as an artist. Being on set was the most empowering and grounded I’ve ever felt, directing is my happy place. After all my previous jobs, I’m so glad I finally found what I want to do forever.

How does a Mechanical Engineering major end up becoming a filmmaker?

Rachel Harrison Gordon: I think my background made gave people the confidence to trust me and hire me on my first set jobs, before I had any filmmaking experience.

Making a film is about coordinating lots of movie parts. Engineering gave me an appreciation of that, but the difficulty and amount of problem-solving work I completed as part of my curriculum taught me the tenacity and stamina required for film: for the physical labor, for the early hours, for the criticism and confusion your vulnerability can be met with…..

I’m grateful to have such a multi-disciplinary background. It contextualizes my current path, and I appreciate the journey.

My interest in storytelling evolved through pursuits of perspectives in journalism and in government, through studying people through quantitative behavioral data and through their stories. After graduating with a Mechanical Engineering degree from the University of Pennsylvania, I took professional roles related to Computer Science and data. I served as a Presidential Innovation Fellow for the Obama Administration, focusing on learning about Veterans and their experience returning home. I worked as a data analyst within a consumer insights group at The New York Times, analyzing how people across the world engage with news platforms.

I felt so close to important subjects, but not quite in the right position to help people tell their stories. This is what inspired me to pursue film.

One of the things I’ve noticed online is how Jews of Color tend to have their religious credentials questioned at shul. Is this something that you’ve had to deal with?

Rachel Harrison Gordon: My mom and I have both had moments where we felt on-the-outside, or part of a competition––as if there is a point system for accruing religious good-ness. There were times we felt like we couldn’t go to Temple enough, pray at home enough, speak enough Hebrew etc. to be considered a “good” or “real” Jew. I don’t think this is a unique experience for religion or inherently related to race.

That being said, I was always 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.

There is sometimes an issue with efforts to create inclusion where members of the majority will feel the need to translate things on the minority’s behalf, in a way they assume the individual will relate to. Unfortunately, it’s patronizing and others the individual they are trying to speak up for, and reveals assumptions about that individual’s method of communicating or background. I wish communities did more listening to – and less speaking up for – the quieter voices.

Being treated as an other made me retreat inside myself and not participate. My “bad” Jew fear became a self-fulfilling privacy. I hate to see this happen to the young kids of color.

Outside of your own film, what else are you excited to do during SXSW?

Rachel Harrison Gordon: I’m a huge, huge, music fan and am super excited to see the keynote with the members of NIN. Eager to see all the new music videos that premiere.

I am working on VR project and excited to see the potential of how that format can impact storytelling.

Broken Bird holds its North American premiere during the 2020 SXSW Film Festival (Shorts Program 3).

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.