In addition to her documentaries Still Doing It: The Intimate Lives of Women Over 65, and Suicide On Campus, a web documentary produced in conjunction with The New York Times Magazine, Deirdre Fishel‘s previous film CARE peeled back the curtain of a topic Americans often avert their eyes away from, the largely hidden world of in-home elder care. Now she’s made a documentary about another urgent subject resonating especially loudly around the country right now: Women in Blue shines a spotlight on the women within the Minneapolis Police Department working to reform it from the inside by fighting for gender equity.
The New York-based filmmaker connected with us to talk about making a film on women police officers at a time when police are in the spotlight, on how she was able to embed with these women and earn their trust, and about how she managed to finish this story during such a tumultuous period, including the challenges of working on it right up through the COVID pandemic.
What compelled you to want to make a film about women police officers?
After Eric Garner was put into a chokehold by an NYPD officer and died shortly after, I turned to the only police officer I knew at the time, Lt. Sallie Norris. Devastated by this senseless act of police brutality, I wanted to know if this could have happened on her watch. She told me it absolutely couldn’t have. The Rookie had started the interaction aggressively, quickly letting it escalate out of control. She said she would have started the interaction by simply saying, “Hello my name is Sallie Norris, what’s yours?” Those human words started me thinking, do women police differently than men?
I quickly found research from the 1990’s that detailed, with some evidence, that women officers do use less force than their male counterparts and are involved in less officer-involved shootings. They deescalate and communicate better. Given the prevalence of police violence, I decided to make a film that would explore this question, what do women bring to policing and what are they facing in this traditionally, even toxically, male institution?
I soon realized that there was no way to make a film just about gender and policing and started to see the film as an exploration of the intersection of gender, race, and violence in policing through the eyes of women officers.
Who do you hope Women in Blue reaches and impacts the most?
I hope the film impacts the people (mayors, judges, DAs, legislators and even the new Attorney General) who can work to remove the barriers that keep women out of policing as well as create the protections and support they need to thrive. In order for women to help transform public safety there needs to be a tipping point of 30% women, more than double the number of women in public safety now. I hope the film can help lead to awareness that as we work to reimagine public safety — getting more women, particularly Black women, is one effective step.
There had to have been a lot of challenges and complications in trying to embed with women police officers and tell this story, especially given everything going on in this country. What comes to mind the most as far as what you had to overcome to make this?
While we were first filming, years before George Floyd was murdered, there were two other officer-involved shootings. It was deeply troubling to us and to the women in leadership we were following. On a practical level it raised the question of whether we would be able to finish the film. Chief Harteau had given us full access, but she was forced to resign three months after we got there.
While the new Chief never asked us to leave, we lost communication with the front office. In many ways that let us continue to film under the radar, but it made our position far more precarious.
I sort of held my breath for three years, thinking that they could pull the plug at any moment. They actually did one month. I called Commander Chiodo and she told me she could not speak to me. Then that ended, but there was deep uncertainty throughout the production.
And trust, too, is obviously hugely important in getting to tell this story. How did you get the women in this film to trust you and let their stories be told?
First of all, Chief Harteau set up a meeting and invited most of the women in the department. She told them all that as long as they wanted to be part of the project, I could follow them anywhere on the job. So that created huge trust. Beyond that, I think just being very honest and clear about what I was trying to do. I wanted to tell an intimate story about women who choose policing and what they are up against. I also wanted to go home with them and see their families and what they bring home from their job.
The women I followed felt that being mothers and that sense of care was key to the kind of policing that they wanted to do, so that felt powerful to them. I got to know their families and their kids over time, which made for stronger relationships.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
There is a scene of a group of young activists, with the head of the [Minneapolis] NAACP Jason Sole, exploring and riffing on what could public safety look like without the police. How could they come together to create community safety that was restorative and not punitive? This was in 2017, way before the national discussion around abolition and reimagining the police was front and center.
Jason is an extraordinary organizer and human. It’s a powerful scene and I tried to put it in the film for two years, but because Jason didn’t become a character in the film, we couldn’t find a place for the scene in the already very complex narrative. I wish we could have.
Is there a particular moment in your film, in this story, that will stay with you the most?
The last scene in the film with Sgt. Alice White and her daughter, Darah made the most impact on me. We filmed in the summer of 2020 and because of Covid I was shooting the scene remotely. I was on Zoom directing the scene from 1,000 miles away and really hating the process of not being there and then the scene became so intense and I burst into tears. It was just such an open, beautiful moment between a mother and daughter, facing incredible pain and yet being there for each other. That scene affects me profoundly every time I see it.
What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?
Night and Fog by Alain Resnais, Streetwise by Martin Bell and I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck.
What film/project(s) are you working on next, if you can tell us?
I have a bunch of ideas floating in my head, but right my focus is on having a robust and impactful outreach campaign for Women in Blue and supporting my students at City College [of New York] who are in production during COVID and taking classes remotely.
TODAY: The new PBS documentary @WomenInBlueDoc follows 4 female officers in the Minneapolis Police Dept. and explores how women police differently. We talk with the director @deirdrefishel and Sgt. Alice White about her experience in uniform.
— Fresh Air (@nprfreshair) February 8, 2021