Interview: Filmmaker Stefan Forbes on Toxic Masculinity, Hostage Negotiations and Finding the Story in Hold Your Fire
In the 2008 documentary Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, director Stefan Forbes painted a portrait of a political player whom he considered a force against all things good and right. But in his latest work, Hold Your Fire, Forbes has opted to place the spotlight on a person he considers a force for positive change—a NYPD psychologist named Harvey Schlossberg, whose techniques in conflict resolution led to what is now the modern-day practice of hostage negotiation. His methods were first employed during a 1973 standoff in Brooklyn, during which Shu’aib Raheem and his three friends (all young Muslim men) attempted to steal guns for self-defense. The incident sparked the longest hostage siege in NYPD history and could have easily turned into a bloodbath.
In the shadow of failed hostage situations like those at the Attica Correctional Facility, the “Dog Day Afternoon” bank heist, and the Munich Olympics massacre, Schlossberg was brought in as an attempt to end this particular standoff differently, despite the fact that nearly every police officer on the scene was out for blood. Forbes interviews people on both sides of this standoff—police, the hostage takers, and the hostages themselves, and the result is a fascinating and quite relevant movie that gets to the heart of every conflict and the desperate need for reforming police methods. In Chicago, the film is now playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center. I had the chance recently to speak with Forbes prior to his recent appearance at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, for a Q&A after a screening of Hold Your Fire. Please enjoy our talk…
One of the things that was perhaps most disturbing that I learned from your film is something you reveal at the end. There’s a title card that says that the techniques that came out of this incident are used all over the world—militaries, governments, police—but in police forces in the United States, they aren’t standard operating procedure. Why do you think that is?
How much time have you got? [laughs] All American men inherit a really toxic version of masculinity, which to me goes all the way back to the Scotch-Irish herding society that my people came from. You had your whole bank account running around in your front yard, so you had to show your neighbors that you were capable of great performative acts of violence so they wouldn’t steal your damn sheep. We inherited this frontier justice and an obsession with guns that was really intensified after the Civil War by the gun industry, where millions of dollars have been spent convincing us that having the means to solve any disagreement with bullets was a patriotic thing to do. Our psyches have been bombarded with messages about violence and masculinity, where domination is seen as our goal, and any admission of weakness or vulnerability is anathema. People call it “the man card.” How do we talk about a great football player? “He can really take a lot of punishment.” This ability to engage in a stoic way with violence and injury is seen as crucial, and it’s killing us. I was so fascinated to discover Harvey Schlossberg, who had an incredible critique of this stuff and a solution.
To think that in the violent, authoritarian, paramilitary organization of the NYPD, which has more officers than many countries have in their military, that there was a 99-lb. Jewish intellectual preaching radical empathy. That was amazing to me. It’s not surprising that Harvey’s incredible solution has been ignored for 50 years. I believe every law-enforcement officer who carries a gun deserves this training. It’s criminal that people don’t know about Harvey, and we’re hoping this film can spread the word.
It was be bittersweet that you got this great interview with him in here, and in many ways you solidify his place in history and his legacy, and that he’s not here to see your final film. Did he get to see any version of the film before he died?
No, but Harvey was a remarkably gentle, humble and self-effacing guy. He didn’t care about glory or credit, and it might be part of why he’s not better known and why his system isn’t known. Although it might also be why he had the success he did; he was so non-threatening that the NYPD welcomed him training officers and spreading the gospel of hostage negotiation. He was able to make a certain amount of change in a culture that is notoriously resistant to it. The guy was like a saint, and it is tragic that he wasn’t able to see the film.
Why do you think that this specific incident and point in history was the right time for his message and his methods?
It was a time in American society, very much like 2020, with protests in the street and these very high-profile tragedies in policing happening. At Attica, they were so determined to violently dominate this uprising that they went in and slaughtered their own prison guards. I think the disaster at Munich was so visible on a global level, and the German authorities had no idea what they were doing. Any police administrator with a brain in their head knew that solutions were needed. It wasn’t rocket science to realize this wasn’t the way to handle things. I think Harvey very soon began to encounter deep, vocal resistance from a generation of police leaders and thinkers, and it was only the determination of the commissioner that his system began to get implemented. Other high-ranking police officials, as you see in the movie, derided the commissioner as a bookworm and a pantywaist. These men’s very masculinity was felt to be under attack; they thought Harvey was a homosexual because he wanted to use words rather than guns to solve problems. It was shocking to me working on this film, during the killings of Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain and Michael Brown and George Floyd, to discover that this solution had been around for 50 years and saved thousands of lives around the world, but it’s barely known in America.
How far back did you decide you wanted to make this film? It’s a been a few years since your Lee Atwater documentary, which I thought was terrific. It seems like you started working on this before many of the incidents you just mentioned. And how much of this story did you know before you dove into it?
I’d been looking for a conflict-resolution story for years. As a very young girl, my mom was forcibly taken from her home, along with her neighbors, by the Russians and taken to a work-camp near Siberia. She was a victim of incredible trauma and hunger during World War II—again, an echo of what’s going on today. Coming from a family that was traumatized by violence, I wondered who were the people that had a solution for this, who have a way of defusing conflict? Who are these hostage negotiators, and what do they know that the rest of us don’t know about conflict, even in our lives? These techniques are even good for anyone who has a toxic uncle who you have to hang out with at Thanksgiving. How do we defuse conflict, let people feel heard, redirect hostility? I wanted to learn more about it, and I’d been searching for a great topic for a decade. For example, I spoke to conflict-resolution specialists between Sunni and Shiite clerics in Iraq. But the best story I found after all that research was here in my community in Brooklyn, which was amazing to discover this story that felt so fresh and had echoes of films I adored, like The French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon, and Serpico. It was the great, untold New York 1970s story. Can I tell this in 2020, with a slightly different approach? That was a huge challenge and part of what took me so long.
I know you edited the film too. One of the things that really impressed me about the film was your pacing. You cut this like a thriller. More interestingly, you have people in this movie who, I believe, aren’t telling the truth. I’m wondering, how do you deal with two people telling you two different versions of the same story in a documentary? Do you present each version equally, or do you give weight to the one that you believe is being more truthful?
Great question. We pay so much lip service to pluralism in America, but actually trying to construct a coherent national story around it is incredibly difficult, and I gained a lot of sympathy for that, having to tell this story from multiple viewpoints without a narrator. At times, the edit was chaotic and confusing, and it was so hard to tell this story while letting everyone’s voices be heard. That’s what we’re struggling with in America. Sometimes, you need to lean in and embrace the conflict. When you find radically different versions of the truth, sometimes the best thing to do is let them smash into each other cinematically, and acknowledge that disagreement. So many times, we’re taught to paper over conflict in favor of this virtue signaling or phony “Let’s all get along” narrative, but my goal was to create a messy conversation around race and police and masculinity, where we can really get in and grapple with some of these issues on a more granular level. I felt that was the only way we’re going to move forward as a society. It’s powerful seeing people disagree on screen and tell each other they’re full of shit. Conflict is cinematic; we shouldn’t shy away from it. Sometimes, it really works. As a documentarian, you want to hear different viewpoints.
You said a minute ago that you think this is the great untold New York story. Did I read somewhere that you were approached to turn this into a feature film?
Yeah, I’m a screenwriter as well, in my day job. There’s been a lot of interest in this story, and we may be announcing something soon. People in Hollywood are all over this. They’re fascinated by this thriller of an event and the culture clash and the violence, but there are deeper lessons as well. It’s the perfect story to do a limited series about, because you really get the chance to delve into the cultures and the nuance of this violent time, full of conflict that really mirrors our own time. It would cover this type of story with a multi-cultural perspective. It’s exciting to me that we have a chance to engage a classic thriller, with a more nuanced point of view.
The people on both sides of this standoff voice doubts about their own actions and attitudes at the time. Was that something you encouraged them to explore during your interviews, or was that something that arose more organically?
With an event like this, people are often speaking from their younger self and various emotions from trauma are surging out of them in the interview. Other times, you feel the wisdom of the intervening 50 years, a much more nuanced perspective. A lot of remorse comes out of people. All of these cops are retired, and I was lucky to track down a lot of them. And with the perspective of the intervening years, they have some of the harshest critiques of policing of anyone, which is fascinating to me because in public, all you hear is about the thin blue line, and they close ranks. But if you give them the chance to speak, they always say the most fascinating things that you don’t expect. I really learned to do what Harvey did in negotiating: practice that deep listening and leave space for people to uncover deeper thoughts.
I wanted to ask about the reception to the film. Since Toronto, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Have any of the responses to the film stood out to you or surprised you—either from a critic or an audience member?
It’s so rewarding to finally share a film with audiences and hear the gasps or the muttering at times, expletives being thrown at the screen. This film really needs a trigger warning. It’s so rewarding having conversations and Q&As about the film. One woman in Kansas City, when we screened at the Black Movie Hall of Fame, asked about my favorite line in the film where someone says “You become that which you fear.” That’s a fascinating comment on how violence can shape us. It was amazing to have people I’d never met before relate so deeply to this film. It’s the reward a filmmaker needs after you spend years on these movies; that’s been so meaningful for me, getting these reactions, having police officers come up to me and say “Thank you so much for making this film. I can’t say any of this stuff in public because I’m on the force, but I love that you’re putting this stuff out there. Some of the critique of the police department is speaking for us.”
It’s continually surprising, the way people respond to the film. Our goal is to get these conversations started. I think of film as a dinner party—you get to invite anyone you want, people who wouldn’t normally talk because society is so divided. You sit down and can have a really fascinating discussion with people who don’t get to talk in our society, because we’re divided by race, class, geography—that’s so exciting to me. People are really hungry for something more substantive than 140 characters of toxic vomit that is going to please the AI bomb. Film can really provide something deeper.
I can’t wait to hear your conversation in Chicago. Thank you so much for talking and best of luck with the film
Awesome. I appreciate the questions. Thanks.
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