Diaspora: Film-maker Roy

Bann Wagon

With Taking The Heat, India-born Bann Roy has taken a small but important step into the big-ticket world of the American film industry

By Rakesh K. Simha

In 1982, one woman, Brenda Berkman, single-handedly took on the entire New York City Fire Department—and won. For the first time women could join the force as firefighters. Of the few who joined the department, one woman was beaten up, one got knifed and some faced death threats from co-workers. Some of these men had no problems draining (a women firefighter’s) an air-tank and leaving her alone inside a burning building. One man finally tells their story via celluloid.

BLOWING HOT: Roy’s film almost got canned in the afterblast of 9/11. But now it has bounced back firmly and hit big time, thanks to the film-maker’s tenacity and ability to withstand the odds

Bann Roy’s Taking The Heat is a compelling documentary about the bravery and the perseverance of these women firefighters in the face of hostility and danger. Narrated by Susan Sarandon, it is the story of how they survived over 20 years on the job told in their own words.

The story began in 1997 when Lieutenant Berkman (now Captain) of the New York Fire Department asked Roy to conduct interviews of about 10 or 12 women firefighters from all over the US who were present at the Women in Fire Service (WFS) National Conference held in Los Angeles. Says Roy, “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. I was very intrigued by the concept of doing an oral history project about women firefighters.” 

While Taking The Heat is a compelling documentary on how women firefighters survived over 20 years on the job, what certainly adds to its star appeal is the fine narrative by Susan Sarandon

Roy convinced his crew (mostly film school friends) to work for free and WFS agreed to pay equipment costs. Roy’s team started interviewing women firefighters, many of whom were about to retire. Even though every woman firefighter’s story was stunning, it was clear the most shocking stories were about the firefighter’s experience in the New York City Fire Department. 

In the past 11 years, Roy has directed award winners like Pepino Mango Nance, For Here or To Go? and Six Weeks

India-born Roy who moved to Los Angeles in 1993, says the film almost got canned in the afterblast of 9/11 when firefighters were treated in a larger than life manner. Says Roy, “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.”

However, filming wasn’t easy. There was a lot of suspicion going around. There was a union circular of sorts that went around informing firefighters about the film and issuing a word of caution to members who were still on the job. “We spread the word that we were making a film on the issue of women firefighters and how they came to the job,” says Roy. “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.”

When it was finally done, Roy chose public television because a film like that, which is not entertainment-driven, had little chance at most of the networks. He hopes the film will encourage a discussion about women in non-traditional occupations.

After earning a master’s degree in documentary production from the University of Southern California, Roy began his career as an editor for network television shows. Over the next 11 years he went on to direct the award-winning documentaries Pepino Mango Nance, For Here or To Go? and Six Weeks. Each of Roy’s films, including Taking The Heat, has examined the lives of marginalized human beings; Pepino chronicles the life of an illegal immigrant in Los Angeles, For Here or To Go? depicts the dilemmas faced by an international student in America and Six Weeks explores a rehabilitation program for at-risk youth in crime-ridden Compton. 

Taking the Heat was featured as the centre story on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. It was also featured as the cover story of the Sunday edition of Daily News. Entertainment Weekly, the highest-selling national weekly magazine on film and television, placed the film in What to Watch, which features the top 6 shows on TV nationwide on March 28th (along with American Idol, Law and Order). Not bad for a man whose first three passions are writing, cooking and taxes.

May 2006

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