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A Cinema of Gestation: On Returning to Filmmaking After a False Start, Multiple Life Changes, and 14 Years of Motherhood

Von Rohr on set with actors Raúl Castillo and Mitzi Akaha. (Photo: Nick Dawson)

A Bird Came Down is both a short and a feature-to-be by Heather von Rohr, produced by Nick Dawson, Editor of the Talkhouse and Filmmaker‘s former Managing Editor, and Emmett Kerr-Perkinson. In the guest essay below, von Rohr discusses the film’s themes within the context of its long gestation period. Von Rohr, Dawson and Kerr-Perkinson are currently crowdfunding the short’s post-production. To learn more, visit the project’s fundraising page at the New York Foundation for the Arts. — Editor

In mid-June, I shot my first film in more than two decades. It’s called A Bird Came Down, and will be both a standalone short and a proof-of-concept for my feature script of the same name. An intimate drama set in Brooklyn, it is a story of love, pregnancy and birdwatching in the age of climate change, with Mitzi Akaha as a novice birdwatcher who is pregnant and single and Raúl Castillo as her love interest, a nomadic nature writer who will soon be following the migrating birds north. The feeling between them is mutual, but do they have a future? Do any of us…?

The last time I made a film, I was five years out of grad school and living in Portland, Oregon. I was optimistic about my future, setting out on a path I had first imagined as a teenager steeped in New York City’s arthouse cinemas. That film had its merits, but it didn’t live up to my expectations, and I failed to follow through on getting it into the world, which was falling apart anyway.

In the post 9/11 economic downturn and the aftermath of a breakup, I moved to Los Angeles intending to focus on screenwriting (while working a day job) and make my way back to directing once I had some financial stability. When that didn’t pan out, I moved to Brooklyn and became a film and television editor. Along the way, I met my future husband, Nick, and within a couple years we were married. (You can read that story here.) Just when I felt settled enough to start thinking about directing again, I got pregnant with our daughter.

That was 15 years ago, and throughout those years I neither gave up on filmmaking nor resolved to get back to it. But I did keep writing, more than anything because it kept me sane and creatively fulfilled while I was devoting much of my energy to our daughter. As a neurodivergent kid with developmental challenges, she benefited from a lot of parental presence and support. Given the all-consuming nature of filmmaking, I couldn’t fathom how to give her that while also making movies. Part of me was relieved to have an excuse not to push forward and risk failure, content to have my creative life remain private, yet at the same time I felt a sense of latent possibility… One day an opening would come, and I wanted to be ready.

Our daughter was in the last semester of 8th grade when I finished writing A Bird Came Down. I had been working on it on and off for years with very little outside input. Occasionally I would talk through a plot point with Nick or a writer friend, or send a draft off to a lab or contest, but for the most part the story lived only on the page and in my imagination. I gave it to Nick to read expecting some notes and another round of revisions. Instead, he said, “I love it. Let’s make it!”

From that moment, things began to change. Nick, who is a film journalist, came on as a de facto producer, and we started sending the script out to actual producers, talking to directors for advice, and generally putting ourselves out there. The reception was overwhelmingly positive, and when we decided to make a proof-of-concept short, we were able to put together a talented and experienced cast and production team.

On set last month, despite the long gap since I had last directed, I felt at ease and in my element, and I could imagine a different version of my life in which I had been making films all along. Reflecting on this, it would be easy to get caught up in regrets: if I had been braver and more committed, if I had arranged my life—and my family’s lives—differently, could I have done it all? Yet I know that much of what I have to offer as a filmmaker now is a direct result of the time I took and the choices I made in getting here.

Certainly the years of writing and editing have made me a better storyteller, but more than that, the life I lived during that time gave me a personal and embodied story to tell. A Bird Came Down is not autobiographical, but it is deeply informed by both the details and the broad strokes of my life and experiences. It is rooted in the anxiety of having a child as the climate news was becoming ever more dire; in a longing for nature in my urban life and the greater awareness of my own biology that came with pregnancy; in the challenges of finding a partner to have a family with, and in the challenges of having a family.

In the short I focused on the love story, but in the feature there are two other important characters: a neurodivergent teenage girl, Dora, and her mother. They are not based on me and my daughter (who was quite a bit younger when I conceived the character), but they are drawn from my experience with her, and from my observations of other neurodiverse kids and their families I’ve met over the years. Although Dora is not the protagonist, she is the heart and soul of the story, eliciting tenderness and opening the other characters (and eventually, I hope, viewers) to her pure and unwavering way of being in the world. Without the years of my daughter’s childhood during which Dora’s character evolved, there would be no Dora, or she would in any case be more a projection or fabrication.

What I have to offer, then, is a cinema of gestation. Like my daughter, who held off on being born for as long as possible, arriving at 42 weeks, and weighing in at a healthy 10.5 pounds, A Bird Came Down is arriving late, but with the benefits of a prolonged period of nurturing and development that are, so far, serving it well. Whether that can sustain me as an emerging filmmaker in a culture that isn’t oriented toward this mode of creating remains to be seen—but I could not make this film in any other way.

We are currently crowdfunding for our post-production budget. Thanks for any support!

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