TAKING THE HEAT: The First Women Firefighters of New York City

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Filmmaker Q&A

TAKING THE HEAT filmmaker Bann Roy discusses getting involved with controversial subjects, giving a voice to the underdog and the pleasures of working for free.

What led you to make TAKING THE HEAT?

In 1997, Brenda Berkman asked me to conduct interviews of about ten or 12 women firefighters from all over the country who were present at the Women in Fire Service (WFS) National Conference held in Los Angeles. I really didn’t know Brenda at the time—I had met her only once at a film screening earlier that year in New York—but she quickly managed to convince me of the importance of the project. Once we started dealing with specifics of the project, I found out that this wasn’t a paid gig, but by that time I was very intrigued by the concept of doing an oral history project about women firefighters. I convinced my crew (mostly film school friends) to work for free and WFS agreed to pay equipment costs. We started interviewing women firefighters, many of whom were about to retire. Even though every woman firefighter’s story was stunning, it was clear that the most shocking stories were about women’s experience in the New York City Fire Department. While interviewing Brenda Berkman (a lieutenant at that time), I realized why she was such a lightning rod in the fire department.


What impact do you hope this film will have?

First of all, I hope it clears up some very persistent myths that circulate from ear to ear in firehouses…. Secondly, I hope this film encourages a discussion about women in non-traditional occupations…. Finally, I would like to think that this film honors the first batch of women firefighters of New York City.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

My film was about a very controversial and painful chapter of the New York City Fire Department’s history, so I saw a lot of suspicious eyes throughout the making of it. But perhaps because I was mostly dealing with a time period that had passed 25 years ago, some people chose to lower their guard. The biggest challenge came on that dreadful day of September 11, 2001. After that, I stopped the project cold for about a year and a half and seriously considered dropping it completely. Sometime during this period, a friend from my original film crew reminded me that if the story of the women firefighters of New York City did not get told now, it would probably get buried forever.

How did you meet and gain the trust of the women firefighters who appear in the film?

Getting their trust was not a big problem. There were some personality issues and internal conflicts that I had to navigate, but overall it was not difficult. They are all great personalities and even greater human beings; some of them are personal friends now. I certainly want to mention the fantastic job our producer Barbara Multer-Wellin did in researching, contacting and co-interviewing subjects of the film. Much of what you see in the film is the result of her hard work and sheer professionalism.

How did you convince those with the opposing viewpoint to open up to you?

We spread the word that we were making a film on the issue of women firefighters and how they came to the job. I believe there was a union circular of sorts that went around informing firefighters about our film and issuing a word of caution to members who were still on the job. But we were mostly interested in people who were active firefighters during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and were retired now. Many of the retired firefighters came forward on their own accord.

What period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude? Any updates on the people and what they have been doing since then?

The filming started in 1997, although we did not know then that we were making a film. The last shot was filmed in 2003. In all, it has been about six years of shooting. As for updates on the men and women firefighters of the film, one woman and two of the men have retired. Brenda still continues as a captain in the FDNY, and Rochelle Jones as a battalion chief.

Why do you think the story of New York City women firefighters has not been told before?

Well, the story about women firefighters has been told several times—in the form of news reports. If I have to guess why a film has not been made, I would have to say that the lack of access must have been the main reason. Most of the women firefighters are extremely guarded about their experiences out of fear of a backlash. Perhaps it was possible for them to talk candidly about the controversial issues and events because many of them are now retired or are high-ranking.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

If it’s a good story, it always keeps you going. It’s as basic as that. Having said that, as we all know only too well, it is really tough.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

I don’t think a film like TAKING THE HEAT, which is not entertainment-driven, has much of a chance at most of the networks. And I say that as a compliment to PBS. PBS is perhaps the only network that still takes risks in presenting alternative views of life in a way that is not overtly sensational. That is why I am so happy that my film is being broadcast on Independent Lens.

What are your three favorite films?

Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple)
The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
All About My Mother (Pedro Almodovar)

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

My writing, my cooking and my taxes.

What sparks your creativity?

Frustration and helplessness, Occasionally, a smile.

Read the filmmaker bio >>

Learn about life as a firefighter from women of FDNY >>

View a timeline of the history of women firefighters >>

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