Why did you decide to tell this story now?
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.
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 Governor—how did you identify all these people and their descendants?
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.
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.
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?
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.
By highlighting the factors that went into the owners' negligence, do you fear that you're showing them in a sympathetic light?
We humanized them, for sure.
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.
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?
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.
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.