Tekst (smal)

IDFA Luminous: Saskia Gubbels on Burning Out

Interview by Nick Cunningham

In her new feature doc, which world-premieres at IDFA, Dutch director Saskia Gubbels observes, at first hand, how change is effected within the Amsterdam Fire Department towards wider gender and ethnic inclusivity.

Still: Burning Out - Saskia Gubbels

Just about everywhere, firefighters are considered to be heroes. This was the case with Dutch director Saskia Gubbels whose father-in-law was a much-revered fireman in the north of The Netherlands. Likewise, researcher Monique Lesterhuis, whose father fought fires in the east of the country. But the firefighters of Amsterdam have always had a poor reputation, says Gubbels, one laced with sexism, misogyny and racism. 

When the filmmaker read an interview with fire chief Tijs van Lieshout in which he stated that the Amsterdam service was almost on its knees because of burn-out and PTSD, she felt this was the time to investigate her city’s brigade. So she contacted van Lieshout who in turn gave his blessing to her contacting each of Amsterdam’s 12 fire stations, all of whom responded, except one…

For many years the Dirk station was dominated by veteran commander Gerrie, the eldest and most experienced of the station’s six chiefs, and a man with a touch of the action hero about him. Articulate and with good looks that belie is 58 years, he a natural leader who commands a troupe [almost all white] who are loyal to him. He is also, one can argue, somewhat of a dinosaur. What he sees as harmless banter, others would see as sexism or racism. He didn’t respond to director Gubbels’s requests to meet. “When they need me… they will come to me,” is how he described the director’s entreaties. 

That said, he agreed to the project and put up little objection to his every move, and that of his close team, being followed, and he certainly wasn't going to change behaviour for the camera. According to Gubbels, there has always been a historical divide between the firefighters and the higher management within the Amsterdam force, and that is seen in spades within this film, as all policy decisions, such as wider inclusivity and the drafting of volunteer personnel, are argued over and objected to by Gerrie and his men. Inevitably, we hear references to penis size and a holiday tan which doesn't quite render him as brown as an ethnic colleague. As he explains to his female superior Marleen of his banter, “It doesn’t mean [colleagues] are being bullied. We joke about everything, like women with small or big breasts.” It is bevaviour which seems almost anachronistic, if it wasn’t so brazenly evident within Gubbels’s film.

But change is afoot. The current premises are closing down and the station will be relocated, and with that comes root and branch change, which entails a new intake of younger firefighters with more women and representing the wide ethnic spectrum. And the passing of the old guard, of which Gerrie is commander in chief. 

Gubbels points out how, with many documentaries, it can take quite a while to gain the trust of a subject and have them act naturally in front of the camera. Not so with Gerrie and his men. “I got some fund money to work two days with them, with the camera,” she says. “I told them, we are going to see how it works, and you have to tell us what you think. And I was very surprised. In two hours Gerrie forgot the camera was there, and was just totally himself.”

One curious element in the film is the character of Joyce, the only woman in the Dirk station. She is at times subject to questionable comments but is accepted as part of the group, and Gerrie does his best to support her attempts to rise to the rank of commander, “as he would do for his male colleagues,” Gubbels suggests. Joyce seems genuine in her belief that firefighting is a “man’s world,” in the process rendering the city’s female mayor dumbstruck during a workshop meeting that the politician calls with other firefighters. It is obvious, however, after the mayor leaves, that her female colleagues actually agree with her, to varying degrees.

In Burning Out*, produced by Tangerine Tree, Gubbels is determined not to take sides, and leaves it up to the viewer to form their own opinion on what they have seen. In many ways, there is something almost Shakespearean in Gerrie’s disappointment that folk take offence at his beliefs and behaviour. In his defence, he doesn’t seem a bad person, merely delusional and somewhat prehistoric. That said, he is far from stupid, and even manages to generate a degree of sympathy. 

“There is an evolution in the film, which I like very much,” Gubbels observes. “What gradually became clear to me, during the 2 years that I have been filming, was that Gerrie was mainly against everything, but gradually came to realize that he was no longer in the right place. He finds out that his fight is a battle against the odds, and this insight makes it both painful and human at the same time.”

IDFA takes place on November 8 - 19. For an overview of Dutch docs selected for IDFA 2023, inlcuding screening schedule, click here.

*Film is supported by the Netherlands Film Fund

Director: Saskia Gubbels
Film: Burning Out
Festival: IDFA