Tonight, at 9pm EST, HBO will premiere a new doc Triangle: Remembering the Fire in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire which killed 146 people mostly all young immigrant women on March 25, 1911. The death of these young immigrants helped create new labor laws which protect the workplace even today. The film is incredibly relevant to what is going on in our country in regards to unions and workers rights.
Director Daphne Pinkerson answered some questions about the film
Women and Hollywood: What made you want to tell the story of the Triangle Fire?
Daphne Pinkerson: We (Marc Levin her co-producer) made a film for HBO called Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags about the economy through the story of the garment industry. We covered the Triangle fire briefly then as a turning point in the labor union movement. Sheila Nevins, our executive producer and the President of Documentary Films at HBO, revealed at that time that she may have had a Great Aunt Celia who died in the fire. A list of the victims showed that she did indeed work at the factory and that she had a fractured skull, indicating that she had jumped from the building. She was just 17 and had only been in the country for a few months. Sheila finally understood why every time her name was mentioned, her grandmother’s eyes would fill with tears and the conversation would abruptly end. With the 100th anniversary of the fire coming up, we were inspired by Sheila’s family connection to tell the story through interviews with descendants of people who were there that day of the fire. We wanted to show that these were individuals, with families who loved them, and that the pain of that day reverberated down through the generations. We teamed up with a genealogist, Michael Hirsch, who located family members and with them came a treasure trove of pictures of the young women before they died. These were cherished images passed down through the generations. The heart-felt interviews and photographs of these beautiful young women enabled us to personalize the story in a way that really hadn’t been done before. We also wanted to put the story in its full historical context by starting with the Uprising of the 20,000 and taking it through the New Deal and into the present so that viewers could see why Triangle still has meaning today.
WaH: The film feels so relevant today with what is going on around the country regarding the assault on union rights. Do you have any comment on what we can learn from the film and the experience to use today?
DP: The Triangle fire galvanized a reform movement in this country that led to a better balance among government, labor and industry. With the outsourcing of union jobs over the past decades, workers have increasingly lost their place at the table and the interests of business have once again begun to dominate the national conversation. As the Triangle fire showed, we cannot rely on business, or a government beholden to business, to make sure there are sprinklers and fire drills in the workplace. This only happened as the result of labor leaders and reformers putting pressure on government. Lax regulation enables businesses to cut corners in their drive to push production forward. This leads to accidents like the Triangle fire, and as we mention in the film, the recent mining and oil rig disasters. You also have to question giving tax incentives to US businesses to produce products in countries that don’t abide by our own legislated standards. The Triangle strikers fought, and then many died, so that we could have these standards.
Much of the clothing we now wear is made in factories that don’t have the same labor, safety and environmental rules we have here in this country. Furthermore, as we showed in our last film, Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags, outsourcing destroyed the domestic garment industry. These were not just assembly line jobs; they employed managers, salespeople, designers, producers, and more. There was upward mobility in these fields and people could start their own businesses. This job loss has been repeated in industries across America. Now we have millions of people who are unemployed, underemployed or who have stopped looking for work. There are five people for every available job. I would hope that a strong reform movement could increase the influence of working people once again and refocus the priorities in this country so that the well-being of individuals counts as much as the financial bottom line.
WaH: Women led the march for workers rights and women were the majority of women killed in the fire. What does this story say about women and women’s rights and how far we have come?
DP: The Uprising of the 20,000 in 1909-10 was an amazing event in American history. It was the first large uprising of American women and at a time before they even had the vote. Their struggle paved the way for a dramatic shift in the role and meaning of government. Really for the first time, government responded to the needs of women, children and working people in general. Frances Perkins, the first woman to hold a US Cabinet post and the first woman US Secretary of Labor, was there the day of the fire, as we mention in the film. She witnessed the workers jumping out of the windows and was profoundly affected. She went on to say that the New Deal started on March 25th, 1911, and she was instrumental in shepherding legislation that improved the lives of working people. Women were in a second class position at the time of the fire. Although there were foreladies, the businesses were all run by men. We have certainly come a long way since then, but we can never be complacent. Look at the assault on women’s reproductive rights today. As Gloria Steinem said recently, the assault on our rights is all about REproduction and PROduction.
WaH: What do you want people to get out of the film?
DP: We would like viewers to remember that the people who died were individuals, not just a group of nameless workers, and to understand that fires will continue to burn in workplaces where owners and government put money over the well-being and safety of employees.
WaH: What made you get into documentary storytelling?
DP: I didn’t grow up making films. I studied political science and journalism and was always interested in the connection between the personal and the political and what makes people tick. I wasn’t sure how I was going to combine my interests into a profession. Then I did an internship at a documentary film company when I was in graduate school and I realized that documentary films was it!
WaH: Do you have any advice for women trying to break into documentaries?
DP: I think it’s great to start out as an intern and try all aspects of the filmmaking process and see what you gravitate towards – editing, producing, directing, managing, etc. Be open to everything, learn everything you can, and then make yourself indispensable!
There is a commemoration on March 25th at 11am at the location of the fire in NYC at the corner of Washington Place + Greene Street. More info here.
Photo image by Anthony Giacchino