by The Minister of Information JR
New York as well as California is in the middle of a major housing crisis currently, leading to shanty towns popping up all over the place. Gretchen and Vivian’s documentary film “Decade of Fire” tells the story of a housing crisis in NYC 50 years ago, where landlords in the Bronx from ’68 to ’78 were evicting low-income residents by burning down their residences. The landlords were met with stiff resistance.
“Decade of Fire” will be screening as a part of the Oakland International Film Fest on Friday, Sept. 27, at 6 p.m. at the Jack London Regal. More information is at oiff.org. Read as Gretchen explains her and her partner’s motivation and the process behind making a propaganda film that is real, that activists can use to politically educate folks about the crimes of redlining and gentrification.
M.O.I. JR: How did you each of you individually come into making films?
Gretchen Hildebran: I got excited about making films in high school, and was able to study filmmaking in college. Then I got interested in documentary filmmaking while I was working with Poor Magazine back in 2003 as an intern.
Along with the Coalition on Homelessness, we collaborated on an ad campaign in San Francisco to fight against a ballot measure, which was put forth by then-Councilmember Gavin Newsom, that would cut general assistance to homeless people. The ballot measure won, but making these ads in collaboration with homeless people – finding a platform for the voices of people who are typically rendered invisible in our world – was an empowering experience for the community and life changing for me.
At the same time, I was also deeply inspired by “The Pinochet Case” by Patricio Guzman. I had always loved filmmaking, but that film and these experiences gave me a motivation to make something that could transform the lives of people participating in the film and push for a deeper shift towards justice in our culture.
M.O.I. JR: How and why did you come together with your partner to create “Decade of Fire”?
Gretchen Hildebran: The concept for this film began in 2002 as a curriculum for students at a South Bronx high school, where producer Julia Steele Allen and Vivian Vázquez Irizarry worked together. They noticed how young people in the Bronx carried its stigma but had little access to its true history.
This curriculum was rejected for being “too radical” but began a dialogue which Vivian and Julia invited me to join, which began a 10-year journey of shaping Vivian’s lived history into a compelling story that could reach a broad audience who have never had a chance to glimpse behind the stereotypes that have defined the South Bronx for the last 40 years and tell the true story of how they were neglected and abandoned by the government, as well as how they came together to save their homes.
M.O.I. JR:Why did you name your documentary Decade of Fire?
Gretchen Hildebran: From 1968 to 1978, around 40 fires burned in the Bronx every single day. This story is bigger than just the fires, but the fires defined this moment for millions of people who lived there, and for anyone who heard of the South Bronx at this time. It’s just a coincidence that it also took us 10 years to make the film!
M.O.I. JR: Do you see any connections between the housing crisis in New York today and the one documented in the Bronx, in “Decade of Fire”?
Gretchen Hildebran: While the environment has changed from one of total abandonment and neglect to one of gentrification, the impacts upon the community are very similar. The Bronx is the last place with a large stock of truly affordable housing left in New York City; it’s the last place that immigrants can get a foothold in a new city and country.
Most of these neighborhoods are still the poorest in the country. And now that developers want to exploit the land and housing stock to create market rate housing – their profit margins are higher if they develop properties with lower value, a value held lower by segregation and redlining for the last 60 years – these communities and families are being ignored and pushed out with nowhere to go.
Their neighborhoods are being invested in and fixed up now instead of burned, but those improvements are for future, richer and whiter residents, not for them. Landlords are now harassing and neglecting their tenants in an effort to clear the buildings in anticipation of future profit.
“From 1968 to 1978, around 40 fires burned in the Bronx every single day.”
Another strong parallel is the strong community resistance that has grown to meet this challenge, fighting for things like Right to Counsel, fairer rent laws and rent control, and creating their own vision for the neighborhood in the face of the power of the city and developers.
M.O.I. JR: How did you get the footage for this documentary and what was the creative process like creating this film?
Gretchen Hildebran: Making a historical film as a first-time filmmaker was incredibly challenging! The history of any place is deeply complex and complicated, and can reach in so many directions.
We spent years digging for archival footage to tell this story. Every person who lived through a time will have their own idea of why things happened the way they did.
What helped us shape the story at the end of the day was Vivian’s own questions and analysis of what she remembered, and what she learned since to try and understand what happened in the Bronx.
M.O.I. JR: What film festivals have you been selected to screen in thus far?
Gretchen Hildebran: DOC NYC in 2018. In 2019: Full Frame, Chicago Latino Film Festival, Cleveland International FF, Harlem International FF, Maryland FF, Philadelphia Latino FF, Baltimore Black FF, Boston Latino FF, Buffalo FF, Global Peace FF, Milwaukee FF, Newark International FF, Oakland International FF, Oaxaca FF (Mexico), SF Latino FF, St. Louis International FF, United Nations Association FF.
M.O.I. JR: After the festival circuit, what is your plan for the film, the big or little screen?
Gretchen Hildebran: The film is in the middle of a national tour and has screened for housing justice groups in dozens of communities who share a history of redlining and neglect, and which are today on the front lines battling gentrification.
We’ll bring it to the Roxie Theater the week of Oct. 25, including an opening night screening with a panel featuring myself and Vivian and the Housing Rights Committee: https://www.roxie.com/ai1ec_event/decade-of-fire/.
And! We’ll have our national broadcast premiere on PBS the week of Nov. 4, for Independent Lens. Check your local listing for showtimes: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/decade-of-fire/.
M.O.I. JR: When do you screen at the Oakland International Film Fest?
Gretchen Hildebran: Friday, Sept. 27, at 6:15 p.m. at the Jack London Theater: https://www.oiff.org/tc-events/early-bird-decades-of-fire-preceded-by-the-short-film-from-fist-to-knee-and-what-happened-to-dujuan-armstrong/.
M.O.I. JR: How do people keep up with the film?