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Florian’s Knights is a film that straddles the line between a documentary and a paean to firefighters in four North American cities. Director Panayioti Yannitsos spent about three and a half years filming firefighters at work and interviewing them to get at the heart of what makes them tick.

He focuses on firefighters of Toronto, Vancouver, New York City and Detroit. No doubt there are fires that they need to douse, more in some places than in others. Toronto, for example, has relatively few fires but that is only a small part of the job. The firefighters are first responders in many other situations and some of them are horrific.

Yannitsos opens the film with the firefighters’ response to the collapse of the twin rowers in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. The firefighters tried to save people from the collapsing buildings and several hundred of them lost their lives. It was a unique tragedy but the experience left many of them scarred for life.

In Toronto during the celebration of the Raptors’ medal victory, there were, according to the movie, about two million people crowded in the downtown area. A shot was heard and no one knew from where it came or what had happened. Yannitsos tells us that the Toronto Fire Department was the first to respond with fearless and almost lightning speed.

The movie does not have a narrator and the all the information and commentary is conveyed through interviews. Yannitsos and his team interviewed people like Retired Captain Erik Bjarnason and Retired Battalion Chief Rod MacDonald of the North Vancouver Fire Dept. Acting Captain Bill Shokar of the New Westminster Fire Department, Captain Jack Cooper of Toronto Fire Service, Battalion Chief Michael V. Nevin of the Detroit Fire Department, and Dr. Don Vaughn, a Neuroscientist, from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Many of us may have a distorted view of the jobs of the firefighters. Do we really appreciate what they find when they are frequently the first ones to arrive at the scene of a serious collision and witness seriously injured people, or respond to medical emergencies before other services arrive? Perhaps not.

Florian’s Knights describes and illustrates the work that they do and makes it clear that one of the effects is post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.  The title and much of the film deals with the difficulties faced by the men who suffer from PTSD and the way they try to reduce their stress levels.

Florian, if you want to know, is the patron saint of Austria and Poland, but more to the point, he is also the patron saint of firefighters. Some firefighters have started riding motorcycles to relieve stress and formed biker groups that they call Florian’s Knights. Neither event is worthy of mention except for a few unsetting facts. The Florian’s Knights bear frightful resemblance to Hells Angels, the international group of biker gangs that are considered an organized crime syndicate. They are outlawed.

All the people referred to above (except Dr. Vaughn) as interviewees for the movie are members of Florian’s Knights. The organization seems to go out of its way to mimic Hells Angels from generous tattoos on their bodies, the clothes, and badges that they sport and the Harley-Davidsons that they ride. According to one newspaper headline read “Officials concerned new motorcycle club got permission from biker gang before forming.” The new club is Florian’s Knights, the biker gang is Hells Angels, and the place is the Lower Mainland in British Columbia.

All the firefighter who spoke on the film vehemently deny that they have any connection to criminal activity and there is no evidence that they do. The problem is the mental health of some of them and all of them find relief in “wind therapy” meaning that riding a motorcycle reduces their stress. Dr. Vaughn did research on the subject and provided evidence that wind therapy indeed works. Wind therapy reduces stress but it also increases testosterone, according to Dr. Vaughn

The view of firefighters that Yannitsos gives us is that of a male-dominated, macho-minded profession that has no reference to women. Are there no women firefighters? This may be unfair, but most of the firefighters we see in the movie are not exactly models of physical fitness. No doubt they were in better shape when they joined.

In the end, the unanswered question is why do Florian’s Knights  work so hard to look like Hells Angels?


Florian’s Knights, a documentary produced and directed by Panayioti Yannitsos, a production of Crowbar Pictures, was released on September 10, 2021.

October 1, 2021

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