To mark World Down Syndrome Day, intellectual disability charity L’Arche Canada partnered with Tonic DNA and international recording artist Jordan Hart to create a new short film that challenges misconceptions around Down Syndrome. Written and directed by Joe Bluhm and Michael McDonald, Freebird is a coming-of-age story. The film’s protagonist learns to navigate the world with a loving mother, an absent father, a classroom bully, and a life-long crush. The film’s soundtrack is Jordan Hart’s song, Freedom, and the film was officially released on March 21st.
We caught up with the creative team behind Freebird to learn how the project came together, how they used the film to address stigma about Down Syndrome, the making of the film, and its reception. Read on to hear from musician Jordan Hart, creative director Nicholas Herd, and directors Joe Bluhm and Michael McDonald.
This project got started initially, because of the song Freedom. Can you tell us about how you decided to create a music video for the song?
Jordan Hart: I was planning on making a music video for my debut EP, and I felt that it was a great opportunity to shine a light on a community that deserves visibility. So, I called Michael, a friend of mine, who works in disability advocacy at L’Arche Canada. I asked him if he’d be interested in collaborating on a video marking World Down Syndrome Day specifically, because I know that there is so much misconception around Down Syndrome.
How did Tonic DNA connect with L’Arche Canada, and how did this project come to be?
Michael McDonald: Jordan sent me the song, and when I listened, I immediately thought of the stories and oral histories that I’ve heard from around the world. I absolutely felt the song was a good fit, and so we talked about creating a live action film. I reached out to Nick, who was immediately on board, too. We actually got started with planning the live action shoot, but then the pandemic hit.
We didn’t feel it was responsible to do the shoot, given the pandemic. So we shifted to the idea of an animated video. We asked Nick whether he’d ever seen an animated film that featured a Down Syndrome character who looked like him, and he said he hadn’t. So we started reaching out to a couple different contacts to see who would connect with the script. Tonic DNA was at the top of our list, so we were overjoyed when they told us they were interested.
Joe Bluhm: Tonic DNA cares about telling meaningful stories, and stories that matter. When we saw the script we were attracted to it right away.
What kind of representations of Down Syndrome has been normal in the media? In what ways did you want to depart from those representations in this film?
Nicholas Herd: I grew up loving animation, but had never before seen representation of Down Syndrome in an animated film. So having the chance to create that representation in Freebird was very special. You know, I was an advocate myself when I was just a baby. My mother got involved with the Down Syndrome Association because she noticed that I had to give justification for my own life, from a really young age. There is so much stigma around Down Syndrome.
One thing that was particularly important to me was that we show lots of the character’s lives, instead of just a glimpse. And I wanted the story to be for all people who can see themselves in it. For example, another theme of the story is being an advocate and caretaker for your parents. The film is about how everyone is free to be who they are.
Michael McDonald: Often depictions of Down Syndrome have a negative connotation, like pity and fear. For example, after discovering a baby has Down Syndrome, the following scene in a movie or show will be sad. We wanted to make sure we departed from that. We also put thought into the broader allegory of the story. The father in the film represents an ableist view of the world, and the mother represents the opposite, she celebrates neurodivergent minds. We felt this juxtaposition was important.
Could you describe the style of the animation you used for this film?
Joe Bluhm: We used a limited colour palette for the film, as well as line art. We didn’t intend for the line art to be perfect, because we felt that would bring movement and life to the piece. We kept backgrounds neutral, so that the focus would be on the characters and the story. We also purposefully left much of the animation loose, so that viewers could project themselves into it. The most thought definitely went into character design, and Nick was super helpful in that department.
Nicholas Herd: Yes, I can see myself in the character design, which was important, because the character is meant to represent a real person who has Down Syndrome. The first time you see the character, you’re meant to know he has Down Syndrome.
What has reception for the film been like so far?
Jordan Hart: The reception has been amazing. We’ve noticed many parents commenting on the video that watching it made them feel relief, love, and cognizant of what their children are capable of. It’s so special to see how many people have been impacted by the film.
Michael McDonald: You really can’t say to a person in 4 minutes what this film manages to communicate. I think that’s what the magic of a song, animation, and storytelling together do. It’s been amazing to see all the shares on social media, and comments from parents from all over the world.
Is there anything more you would like to share about the process of making this film?
Nicholas Herd: Be sure to watch to the end of the video, because we highlight real people with Down Syndrome from around the world, and say what they’ve been free to accomplish in life. I’d also just like to say that this story isn’t just for people who have Down Syndrome, it’s for anyone who can see themselves in this story.
Joe Bluhm: Tonic DNA, and myself, are so grateful to have been able to work on a story like this. Every single person on our team felt connected to this project, it was a very emotional process. It’s truly fulfilling to work on a story with so much meaning behind it.
Michael McDonald: With the history of disability storytelling, it’s a big deal that we had Nick on the team to shape the story. We couldn’t have done this story justice without him.