- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2000


The documentary's title is "Test of Courage: The Making of a Firefighter." If only the makers could have produced that film.
The one-hour segment they did make should be called "Test for Diversity: The Social Engineering of a Fire Department." But amazingly "Test of Courage" is not especially tendentious for a one-hour documentary airing on PBS and presented by the Independent Television Service — which (the press release says) "was established by Congress to fund and present programs that 'involve creative risks and address the needs of underserved audiences, especially children and minorities.' "
We learn from a voice-over narration that Oakland, Calif., wanted a fire department that "would reflect the makeup of the city, one of the most ethnically diverse in the country." At this point, the warning bells should be ringing like the Vatican on Easter Sunday, and they are more than justified here.
In many respects, this documentary fits into the traditional patterns of the training film and the learn-about-a-job genre — and its best moments are when it just gives us that. The film follows several candidates for the Oakland Fire Department through the interview and hiring process and then one of those persons plus others who make it into the training academy for their early months on the force. The subjects are selected with all the care of a Benetton ad so that everyone can see a face that looks like him or her.
The middle section — about the training of the successful candidates — has the best material. Greg Bell tells us a moving story about how he wanted to be a firefighter since the man who would later become his stepfather saved his disabled sister from a burning building.
Some of the male camaraderie is nicely played out. Frank Tijiboy also gives us the macho ethic that he gets a high from the danger itself. "I don't think about the danger. I'm thinking, 'Let's go; let's kick some butt,' " leaving the distinct impression that had HBO backed the documentary, he would have said something else.
That hubris will change. But the filmmakers and their subjects never get away for very long from wanting to convert us to the wonders of multicultural diversity, PBS style — liberal minorities make the case for quotas; liberal whites make the case for living with them. The morality or rightness of affirmative action is assumed.
The closest the filmmakers tiptoe toward the issue is when Brendan Dunham, a well-mannered white librarian (yes, he really wants to be a firefighter), says he has been told by firefighters across the West Coast that as a white man he has no chance. Sure enough, he is eliminated by the oral interview. But Mr. Dunham says he realized as he left the building that there was "nothing impressive about my interview." In a situation in which the city is taking only 100 of almost 900 applicants, he knows that's a problem.
Another of the applicants who falls at that hurdle, Chandra Holiday, immediately blames the big, bad patriarchy. We've seen how the 5-foot-1, biracial social worker struggles with the physical agility test. When she finally passes it, to tinkling music, the family cheers and her physical exhaustion at the end, it's like the Lifetime version of "Chariots of Fire."
She notes that at her interview, two of the interviewers were taller than 6 feet and that they probably were imagining "little old me" trying to drag them out of a fire.
But her charge instantly segues from heightism and strengthism to sexism. "This is an all-male-dominated profession … but the bottom line is, not all men want to have women" on the force, she says. The differing reactions of the white man and the biracial woman clearly show who expected a sex-based advantage.
Firefighter George Freelen tells the camera that he does ask himself if a woman could pull him out of a burning building. But he says most women "are smart enough to know to get someone else" or to tie a rope around him and "get a couple of people" to heave him away to safety. In the very next clip, he then tells us that affirmative action is not about a loosening of standards. "If you can't perform to the standards, don't do it. Don't ask us to change the standards for you," he says, without apparently realizing that his previous statement did precisely that.
While in training during the interview process, Terry Sanders tells us of his conversations with a firefighter about the physical agility test. The candidates now must complete it in 17 minutes, 55 seconds, while his firefighter friends tell him they had to finish it in 14 minutes. "I guess they want more lady friends in there, which is a good thing," he tells us, almost as convincingly as a "Seinfeld" character insisting "not that there's anything wrong with that."
One of the late segments is about the death of an Oakland firefighter as a building collapsed around his unit — which already had three members severely injured. It's quite moving as we see the formerly cocksure rookies staring death in the face. The scene rhymes nicely with the exuberant graduation with many of the same speakers (and the same bagpiper) assembled, only now for a very different purpose.
Tragedies always happen, and the working-class, warrior ethos of the old-school fireman accepts these lashes of fate unblinkingly. I have no idea about the particulars of this fireman's death. But he might have died because a firefighter who could not pull him to safety was being smart enough to get someone to help, was trying to find a rope or just happened to be 16 minutes of obstacle course time away. Something also tells me that if that were the case, these filmmakers would not have had the curiosity to discover it.

WHAT: PBS' "Test of Courage: The Making of a Firefighter"

WHEN: 10:30 p.m. Friday and Sept. 18 on WETA (Channel 26) and 11 p.m. Sept. 10 on WMPT (Channel 22)

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