Director Panayioti Yannitsos’s Florian’s Knights plunges us into the lives of firefighters and fire rescue personnel as they wrestle not only with the pressures of their jobs but also the psychological toll inflicted upon their psyches. The American and Canadian firefighters and fire rescue we are introduced to remind the viewers of the many challenges they face every day — fires, drug overdoses, suicides, and car accidents. We would like to believe that these men and women can compartmentalize their lives and separate their jobs from their personal lives.
That is not the case. Divorce, substance abuse, sleep deprivation, PTSD, and suicide is endemic to the career. In the case of PTSD, numbers may, in fact, be underreported due to the fact that many firefighters buy into a macho ideology that teaches them to “suck it up” and not seek therapy. Family members suffer just as much, and they note that some firefighters never clock out mentally and are cold in their interactions with them.
Yannitsos has the eye of an anthropologist. Florian’s Knights takes us into firefighting culture in general and the various subcultures within. For example, Canadian firefighters are overwhelmed by drug overdoses in Toronto and Vancouver. Detroit firefighters work in a city described by one firefighter as “the arson capital of the world.” New York’s firefighters were forever shaped by the 9-11 terrorist attacks and are burdened with dealing with every conceivable human tragedy in a city that large. Rod MacDonald recounts his harrowing experiences on the job. Memories of dying babies and decapitated bodies left their traces on his psyche. As he puts it, he cannot drive by certain intersections as they remind him of crash victims. Triggers are everywhere.
“…[firefighters] wrestle not only with the pressures of their jobs but also the psychological toll inflicted upon their psyches.”
There are not many programs that help firefighters with PTSD, so they created motorcycle clubs as a form of brotherhood and therapy. Here Yannitsos takes us into another subculture — the titular Florian’s Knights. They are made up entirely of firefighters, and the group allows them to talk unburdened and deal with their PTSD. You would think that once the documentary shifts in narrative away from job-related traumas and more toward the motorcycle club’s therapeutic aspects, it would run out of narrative fuel, far from it.
Florian’s Knights goes in a surprising direction… in a good way. Nick Elmes, a Vancouver firefighter and member of Florian’s Knights, is photographed with childhood friends who happen to be Hells Angels members. The photo gets picked up by local newspapers. Given the reputation of the Hells Angels, Elmes is fired, and the Florian’s Knights risks being disbanded.
Mental health awareness is much the talk these days. PTSD is a complicated disorder. Traumatic memories leave traces in our psyches that recur. On a deeper level, one wonders how adaptive, if at all, it is for the human mind to relive such traumatic memories. It is sometimes even a mystery as to why certain objects trigger memories. Florian’s Knights makes us aware of how much we still do not know about PTSD. It also makes us aware that a path toward healing can occur either inside an office or on the seat of a roaring motorcycle.
"…makes us aware that a path toward healing can occur..."