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Interview with Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkserson

Workers in sewing room

HBO

Why did you decide to tell this story now?

Marc Levin

Two years ago we did a film for HBO called 'Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags.' At the beginning of that film we had a short scene about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and at the end we had a scene of a similar fire a couple years ago in Bangladesh. Sheila Nevins, the head of documentaries at HBO, mentioned to us that she had heard that a great aunt of hers had died in the Triangle fire, but the family was very reluctant to talk about it. Daphne and our team did some research and found out that a Celia Gitlin, who had recently come over from Russia, had been working there that Saturday and died of injuries that led us to conclude that she was one of the poor women who jumped from the ninth floor to her death. That moved Sheila deeply, as it did all of us, and with the hundredth anniversary of the fire coming up, Daphne came up with the idea that we could tell the story through the eyes of descendants of family members who'd been involved in the fire.

HBO

The scope of people you mention extends beyond the victims, including the elevator man, someone whose job it was to recover the bodies, the state Governorhow did you identify all these people and their descendants?

Daphne Pinkerson

I called the Kheel Center at Cornell University, where the labor archives are housed, to see if they could put us in touch with the family members. They told me to find Michael Hirsch, who would become our researcher and co-producer, and was trying to contact the descendants of all 146 victims. We teamed up with Michael, who knows how to do genealogical research, and were able to track down the descendants through census reports and all kinds of archives. With that came can an incredible treasure trove of photographs featuring the girls who'd died, which no one had ever seen before. We were able to give them their humanity back, since before all anyone had seen was their crumpled bodies.

Marc Levin

We should mention that Michael identified the last six people who were killed in the fire. At the time, many of the victims were unidentifiable, and some of those families were holding out hope against all odds. So, through genealogical research, for the first time in 100 years, all 146 names are listed at the end of the film.

HBO

You spoke with descendants of both the victims and villains, the people who were in some ways responsible for the tragedy. Were the children of the "bad guys" reluctant to tell their stories?

Daphne Pinkerson

They felt it was important to humanize the owners. The owners were there that day; Max Blanck's two little daughters were visiting him. Unfortunately, they took risks to drive production forward and cut costs, but they too were in danger. It was all part of the culture at the time. There was no regulation. In Tammany Hall, money controlled the government. The business of government was to help business, not workers. It was all self-regulation and not much of it. No one wanted to take the time or money to invest in safety precautions. Susan Harris, the granddaughter of Max Blanck, has said that she wishes there were regulations. Her grandfather had employed many members of his extended family, and lost them in the fire.

HBO

By highlighting the factors that went into the owners' negligence, do you fear that you're showing them in a sympathetic light?

Daphne Pinkerson

We humanized them, for sure.

Marc Levin

We want to go deeper than just a caricature. The film shows a cartoon from the era that absolutely villainizes them. We weren't looking to absolve anyone, but we wanted to show that these people were Jewish immigrants who came with nothing and started at the very bottom of the fashion business. Their shirtwaists were an innovation in women's fashion. We were hoping to provide an understanding of who they were.

HBO

It's noticeable in the film that a lot of the protest signs are in Yiddish, and many of the victims have traditionally Jewish names. How central was religion or ethnicity to these women?

Daphne Pinkerson

Many of the workers had fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia. They survived steerage to come here. They didn't come all this way just to be persecuted again by factory owners. Many of them were highly politicized when they got here.

Marc Levin

The majority of immigrants were Jewish and Italian. There was nascent socialism, Zionism, a very fertile political and creative culture among these poor people. Sometimes it was a revolutionary culture. At the time, the rap was that you couldn't organize immigrants because they came from different cultures and all spoke different languages. The Uprising of the 20,000, two years before the fire and including many of the Triangle workers, proved that kind of thinking wrong.

"The pain of a city witnessing such a horror also moves you to make it meaningful, and convert it into some forward momentum so these people didn't die in vain. "

HBO

Scenes of disaster in Lower Manhattan involving people jumping to their deaths are clearly going to evoke images of 9/11. How conscious were you of those associations during the making and conception of this film?

Daphne Pinkerson

Certainly, there are parallels with people jumping from the windows of their workplace which had turned into an inferno. Afterwards, family members were looking for their missing relatives, posting notices. Michael Hirsch found a notice in one old newspaper from the family of a man who was not found, looking for him, worrying that he might be wandering the streets in a daze and couldn't find his way home. Holding out hope against all odds.

Marc Levin

There's no way you can ignore the fact that in downtown New York City, on a beautiful day, crowds of thousands of people were watching people jump to their deaths. That's an image that no one who has seen either one can ever forget. The pain of a city witnessing such a horror also moves you to make it meaningful, and convert it into some forward momentum so these people didn't die in vain. I think that's true of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, in that it was a major catalyst towards the progressive era. As we approach the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, its social impact is a little more ambiguous.

HBO

Has the topic of the film taken on renewed relevancy in the face of state-backed attempts to undo collective bargaining in Wisconsin and Ohio?

Marc Levin

Absolutely. We never foresaw that the release of this film would coincide with such a heated debate over collective bargaining rights and public employee benefits. You have to wonder if we're going backwards. The mainstream media has dismissed unions and government regulations. There are some issues with both of them, but it's important to remember how these things we take for granted came aboutwhether it's child labor laws or just the right to organizemany of which are products of this progressive era. I think the film is more relevant than ever.

HBO

As threatening as those developments are, it's inconceivable that we'd turn back some of those basic safety precautions

Marc Levin

Only if you qualify it as happening here. As the scene in Bangladesh in 'Schmatta' shows, these conditions still exist around the world, and many companies, including those based in the U.S., take part in it. Even within the U.S. there are plenty of illegal workers in the underground economy who are not protected by labor laws. Businesses will cut costs wherever they can, and if you defund all the regulators, we'll get there too.

Triangle: Remembering The Fire