‘Freebird’ challenges misconceptions about Down syndrome

Who: L’Arche Canada (a charity supporting those living with intellectual disabilities) with Tonic DNA. Written and directed by Joe Bluhm and Michael McDonald.

What: “Freebird,” a short film that challenges misconceptions about life with Down syndrome.

When & Where: A trailer was released on World Down Syndrome Day (March 21), with the full four-minute short released on April 19.

Why: The script is based on oral histories from those living with Down syndrome, with contributions from actor and LGBTQ activist Nicholas Herd, who also has Down syndrome. L’Arche wanted a story that “moved away from problematic notions of pity and fear that often shape public discussions, and instead recognized how the story of Down syndrome sounds very different when actually told by someone with the disability.”

How: The video is a coming-of-age story about a boy with Down syndrome who, while cared for by his loving mother, must still deal with an absent father, a classroom bully, and a life-long crush. The plan was originally for a live-action shoot, but L’Arche reached out to Tonic DNA after after pivoting to animation because of COVID.

L’Arche asked for a minimalist animation style, like the sketches of great works of art, said Michael McDonald, national communications director at L’Arche Canada. “People with Down syndrome are often treated as such, as under-developed, rough sketches of what should have been a ‘full-fledged’ human being,” he said.

Tonic DNA worked quickly to find a style that could tell a rich story, but with a simple visual aesthetic. “Knowing that this was a robust story, with half a lifetime of narrative, we couldn’t cut out any of it, yet couldn’t build every detail of the world,” said Joe Bluhm, director at Tonic DNA. “Fortunately, my gut feeling was to do something that felt light, familiar, and loose enough to evoke an idea that the story is still yet to be written for many of the people the narrative speaks to.”

And we quote: “Bodies with Down syndrome have different proportions than those without Down syndrome, and Joe and Tonic took the time to get these dimensions right—the gestures, the expressions, the non-normative proportions—and it was all done with such integrity.”  — Michael McDonald, national communications director, L’Arche Canada

David Brown