Stefan Forbes, the director of a new documentary called Hold Your Fire, believes one fateful event in 1973 Brooklyn could be responsible for modern hostage negotiation as we know it.
“It’s about this incredible event back in 1973 in Brooklyn, where four young African American men were stealing guns for self-defense. The police assumed that they were members of the Black Liberation Army and came down with all the force of the NYPD. Soon, they were surrounded by 1,000 angry cops,” Stefan Forbes says of Hold Your Fire. “They were sitting on an arsenal of weapons. And it snowballed into an event full of miscommunications, and misunderstandings, mistaken identity. And it soon became tragically violent.”
Forbes also explains that the reason he wanted to direct the documentary, which was produced by hip hop and street art pioneer Fab 5 Freddy, was that he wanted to tell an old story in a new way.
“I was amazed to discover this because I love the old 1970s movies like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, and all these American stories of violence and New York and multicultural stuff. But I wanted to tell it in a 21st century way, kind of bringing out voices we might not have heard back then; hearing all different kinds of perspectives on what really happened involving race and class, and police brutality that we didn’t really understand back then was going on, but provides us an incredible window onto what this event became, which was the birth of modern hostage negotiation,” he says.
He also found a way to connect the story of what happened on that day in 1973 to his mother’s childhood trauma.
“I’ve always been interested in culture clash, in opposing forces in society. And I think a lot of that comes from my mom, who as a very young girl was kidnapped from her home in Poland by Stalin,” Stefan Forbes says.
“Her whole community was put on a train and taken to a work camp near Siberia. People froze to death on a train and were thrown out at every stop like kindling. Her childhood trauma that she suffered, it comes down through the generations. We now know that trauma is passed on epigenetically to family members. And I’d always wrestled with what she went through, and I could see that it was buried trauma in her life, never had any tools to really resolve it. And then I wondered, who are the people that understand conflict in our society?” he asked.
“How do they defuse and de-escalate, and save lives and intervene in this process of war and suffering and violence that often seems so like, there’s no way to interact or to solve it. And I’ve been looking for a story like this for ten years. As a doc filmmaker, I traveled to Kenya, I shot in the Rift Valley with warring tribes carrying Kalashnikovs over their shoulders as they heard cattle. I talked to people who mediate between Sunni and Shiite in Iraq. And then I found this crazy story in my hometown of New York — my adopted hometown, I’m really from Boston. But I learned that in this top-down, authoritarian, militaristic institution called the NYPD, which at 40,000 people is larger than many countries’ armies, that there was a guy, a peacenik, a radical pacifist police officer, with a Ph.D. in psychology spreading this message of radical empathy. And I was like, what? Yeah, I got totally fascinated with Harvey Schlossberg, and how he came to be, and that was kind of my way into the story.”
Hold Your Fire is now in theaters and available on demand. Here are some time stamps from the Factual America interview:
00:00 – Trailer for Hold Your Fire.
02:40 – Introducing the guest Stefan Forbes and the film.
05:05 – What Hold Your Fire is about.
06:49 – How Stefan came across the story for the film.
09:35 – Who Harvey Schlossberg was and what his role in this story was.
14:38 – Why conflict resolution methods are not deeply accepted in American society.
19:03 – How vivid the memories of people who witnessed the events covered in the film still are.
24:50 – Why the American justice system needs to become more victim-centered.
26:14 – Who the team behind the film is and how they are involved.
30:00 – The success with representing diverse voices in the film.
Factual America uses documentary filmmaking to examine the American experience as well as universal topics that affect all Americans. Guests include Academy Award, Emmy, and Grammy-winning filmmakers and producers, their subjects, as well as experts on the American experience. We discuss true crime, music, burning social and political topics, history and arts with the creators of the latest and upcoming documentary films in theatres and on the most popular digital platforms. This podcast is produced by Alamo Pictures, a London- and Austin-based production company that makes documentaries about the US from a European perspective for international audiences.
Main Image: A still from Hold Your Fire courtesy of Factual America.