The three-headed team as it were, of co-directors Vivian Vázquez Irizarry and Gretchen Hildebran, and producer Julia Steele Allen, each brought something different and special to the table in the making of the film Decade of Fire, which tells the shocking but untold piece of American urban history, when the South Bronx was on fire throughout the 1970s.
Co-director Vivian is at the very center of the film, as she retraces her Bronx childhood among burning apartment buildings and people rising up out of the ashes to rebuild and come together. A former member of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, she belongs to 52 People for Progress, a community organization that saved her childhood playground and revitalized the South Bronx for the last 35 years.
Her partner behind the camera, Gretchen, is a filmmaker and editor whose work lives at the intersection of politics, policy and human experience, including the documentaries Worth Saving, which was presented in HBO’s Frame by Frame showcase, and Out in the Heartland, which explored anti-gay legislation in Kentucky. They teamed up with Julia, an artist and community organizer also based in the Bronx.
The film is “well-researched, engaging, and, due to the involvement of Irizarry, strikingly personal,”wrote Christina Smith for NonFics, “A moving portrait of a community united against systemic oppression.”
“This is a filmmaker with skin in the game, close to the flames,” adds the New York Times‘ Ben Kenigsberg.
The team behind Decade of Fire took a time out to talk to us about making the film, how they worked together as a unit, and how important it was to have someone deeply embedded in the community to make this work. [Responses are from the team unless specified.]
Why did you make Decade of Fire, and what do you hope it accomplishes?
To change the narrative about places like the South Bronx all over the country; to expose how African Americans, Puerto Ricans and immigrants neighborhoods were targeted by racist policies in the 1960s and 70s, and then abandoned, neglected and their people blamed for the conditions they were forced to endure. To share this little known but critical history and lift up the stories of those who risked everything to save their homes, blocks and communities.
Vivian Vázquez Irizarry: We wanted young people of color, living in the South Bronx and in cities in the United States to know their history in order to step into their own vision of the future.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making Decade of Fire?
Explaining multiple complex policies and discriminatory practices that led to the South Bronx’s destruction in a succinct and clear manner; finding the right balance between the personal and historical threads of the film – we ended up with a kind of hybrid; Vivian finding her voice as a narrator; securing adequate funding and support as first-time filmmakers.
Vivian, you were already a part of this story and this community, but as a team did you have to still work hard to gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
VVI: For the most part, the subjects in the film were open to sharing their stories. The DOF team shared research and spent countless hours listening to interviewees. Conversations were held with community members for almost a year before putting them in front of a camera. Because I was raised and still live in the Bronx, and I was telling my own story, people felt more comfortable sharing their stories with someone who could relate to them.
Gretchen Hildebran: As someone who wasn’t connected to this community initially, working in collaboration with Vivian was critical to gaining the trust of our subjects. The many people we spoke with whose stories were critical background research, and those who appeared in the film, had an instant connection with Vivian and their stories and insight flowed directly from that. Vivian also schooled me in countless ways about the Bronx, its people we met and the stories they were telling, it was a true education for me about how to become trust-worthy as a filmmaker.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
VVI: The impact that the destruction of the South Bronx had on the creation of Hip Hop and Graffiti Art. The community rose from the ashes to reinvent itself.
Julia Steele Allen: There were also many people we interviewed over time who could not be included. The movement to create community gardens from empty lots would have been good to include. “Planned Shrinkage” was a notorious proposed policy to raze the Bronx and turn it into one big parking lot. We couldn’t include it but would have liked to!
GH: I would have loved to include more detail about the complicated role of the gangs in the Bronx community; also it would have been fantastic to investigate more about the arson-for-profit scheme that involved landlords, insurance agents, and politicians (so we heard anecdotally).
But we felt that the personal emotional story of the fires in the community was an urgently important story to tell – plus we didn’t have the resources of someone like FRONTLINE to do an investigation. But I’d still love to make that film someday, and plenty of people who see the film ask to know more about that part of the story.
What moments in Decade of Fire especially made an impact on you or have the most personal resonance?
VVI: The two children lying on their stomachs rolling on skateboards. Despite the devastating backdrop of the community environment, they looked so happy and excited. Also, when Hetty shows me her childhood home. She exudes such pride! The most impactful scene to me while filming was Joe Flood’s (author of The Fires) description of redlining. It’s so crushingly clear.
GH: Vivian’s scene speaking to her son Antonio, which was just a one-day shoot but really became a powerful backbone to the film. As one of the film’s editors, I got the chance to watch them being together so closely, and eventually felt like I was decoding the most subtle and complex exchanges between them.
Sometimes in the edit room this was a huge struggle but was immensely gratifying to find the moments in that afternoon that link Vivian’s emotional journey and the history she’s longing to share with her kids, and to allow these to thread the needle of the whole film by the end.
JSA: I really love the scene where Vivian is talking with students in the Bronx today. They are so clear and open. I also love the use of graphics to help lay bare the political decisions and their impact, from the redlining maps, to the closure of fire houses to white flight and so on.
How did you work together as a team of three?
The team made decisions by consensus. Despite not having a film background, Julia and Vivian participated in much of the film’s creation. Vivian was not just a subject in the film.
What do we do about gentrification/displacement today?
GH: As filmmakers, we don’t have a simple answer, but it’s clear that nearly all of us in the country today – not just people in cities, not just low-income people – are in a housing crisis. People are desperate for a voice in saving and shaping their homes and communities.
We do feel that it’s important and useful to know how people have been fighting and winning this battle for stable, safe, affordable communities through the generations. Hetty, Robert, Mike Amadeo, Harry, Vivian, all the people in the film and in the Bronx who stayed and fought. They are my heroes.
What are your favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?
The Central Park Five, Black Fish, The Battle of Chile (and everything else by Patricio Guzmán), Life and Debt, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.
Do you have any advice for other aspiring filmmakers?
VVI: Making Decade of Fire has been rewarding on so many levels. We are extremely grateful for the support we received throughout the making the film and in specific aspects or phases of our process. Finding mentors who took the time to provide critical feedback, shared connections and who were innovative and out-of-the-box thinking partners in finding solutions to challenges was key to making creative progress with the project.
GH: My advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers is to listen to your subjects to find out what your film is actually about. Make that film, not the one in your head. Show your cut to the most ruthless viewers possible before its done and listen to what they say are the problems (and find your own solutions to those problems).
JSA: I think have the audience in mind who you are making your film for. What do you need to urgently tell them/offer them? Getting this history back to young people from the Bronx was our motivation, challenging the stigma and blame, offering an opportunity for catharsis for the people that survived this catastrophe, and for the people who have survived so many other parallel injustices in cities across the country, throughout history.
What film/project(s) are you working on next?
GH: I’m currently making shorts about overdose prevention in LA County, and this has brought on a lot of bigger ideas for a longer piece about how harm reduction and evidence-based medicine can address the damages of drug addiction, as well as its root causes, even as our country is mostly failing to follow that path.
My other project is a short film about a fabulously queer Jewish arts collective in Brooklyn who throws the City’s best revolutionary Purim pageant and party every year, even if it nearly kills them.