Rachel Harison Gordon just got back from the Berlin International Film Festival. For her short film, Broken Bird to be screening at festivals across the world is difficult for Rachel to process. “I never intended anyone to see it”, she says. The story, set against a suburban New Jersey backdrop, is largely taken from Rachel’s own childhood. Rachel reflects on how the film’s piercing specificity can still resonate with so many different audiences.
Broken Bird opens on the eve of a Birdie’s bar mitzvah. Birdie is a light skinned black girl with a brilliant mane of curls. Rachel didn’t want this story to be about hair, but as she told me, “it’s impossible to separate hair from the life of a black woman.” For Birdie, her hair has become an external representation of the tension she feels, stuck between two worlds.
Birdie’s mother takes her to a black beauty shop to have Birdie’s hair straightened, not because of any prejudice against her daughter’s natural texture, but because she doesn’t know how else to take care of them. Growing up, Rachel always loved the book “Are You my Mother?”, a children’s story about a baby bird wandering around to ask the other animals and asking them the title question. Rachel remembers her own mother being deeply hurt when she asked if she was adopted. The idea that her child felt any sort of disconnect was painful.
People would say that Rachel came from a broken home, and she always found the term harsh and limiting. Her parents were divorced, and while Rachel did sometimes struggle to see herself in her white mother, her father did not always show up in her life. Rachel struggled with how to depict Birdie’s father, “I didn’t want to perpetuate a harmful stereotype about black men.”
It’s true, Birdie’s father doesn’t prove to be the most reliable in the film. But Rachel doesn’t want that sadness to detract from the deeper meaning of hope in the story. Birdie carries her father with her as she finds freedom in her own identity, even when he’s not physically there for her.
In her own life, Rachel says that keeping herself open to a relationship with her father has been worth it. “One of the most optimistic and beautiful things is that I could have just kept my dad out of my life, but it was worth taking the chance of having your heart broken, over and over again.” Broken Bird will leave audiences to ponder the transformative power of placing faith in our loved ones.
Laura Day is a contributing writer for Reel Chicago and Reel 360