A documentary called "Florian’s Knights" is showing on Dec. 11 at the Mae Wilson Theatre at 7:30 pm. Tickets are available from the Moose Jaw Cultural Centre website.
The Florian’s Knights Motorcycle Club was originally formed in the Lower Mainland region of Vancouver to help fellow firefighters cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is a result of their profession.
Regina-born director and producer Panayioti (Pan) Yannitsos is very happy to bring his latest film to Moose Jaw.
“This is a bit of a hometown screening for me because my entire mother’s side of the family is from Moose Jaw, and I’ve spent a lot of time there,” he said.
Yannitsos is based out of Vancouver now, and in 2017 a motorcycle club formed about 20 minutes from his home. “It was a bunch of firefighters,” he said in an interview with MooseJawToday.com, “and they were riding to cope with PTSD.”
St. Florian was a third-century Roman soldier who organized and trained exclusive firefighting brigades. He is recognized and venerated around the world as the patron saint of firefighters.
“For a long time,” Yannitsos said, “firefighters have kept any mental health issue behind closed doors.”
When he approached the club about doing a movie, they were reluctant to trust him. It took months of persuasion before Florian’s Knights recognized that Yannitsos and his production company weren’t there for tabloid-style exploitation.
The stigma surrounding motorcycle clubs was a major obstacle for the early days — it did not help when a picture surfaced on Facebook in 2018 showing Nick Elmes, a co-founder, with a group of Hell’s Angels. The documentary explores the after-effects of that decision while advocating for the real help that “wind therapy” can provide.
It took three and a half years of filming. Yannitsos and his crew explored firefighting all across North America, from Vancouver to California, from Detroit to New York City, which now hosts the largest chapter of the Florian’s Knights Motorcycle Club.
PTSD is a reaction to trauma that usually takes the form of an over-sensitized fight-flight-or-freeze response, coupled with intrusive memories of traumatic events. This can result in constant feelings of anxiety, fear, and guilt, and the inability to relax even in normal situations. While not every person exposed to trauma develops symptoms of PTSD, emergency responders such as firefighters are at higher risk because their entire career is dealing with traumatic events.
“The bike is only one solution. It isn’t the solution, but it’s one of them,” Yannitsos said.
Mental health support offered to firefighters is increasing (especially in the aftermath of 9/11), but the Florian’s Knights still believe that “the greatest resource to a firefighter is… their peer support. You’re in a group situation, with people who understand and who are there sharing that safe space with you.
“There are guys in the club who when they started as firefighters were explicitly told not to talk about mental health, not to talk about trauma. They didn’t want to be seen as weak to the public; that was the whole thing.”
Yannitsos says that data is increasingly available to show that PTSD is real and that there is treatment. This proves, he continues, that having PTSD isn’t weakness, and that isolation due to fear of stigma is doing more harm than good. Firefighters are more likely to die from suicide than in the line of duty.
“There’s no shaming; there’s no machismo or tough-guy bullying against opening up. So you can go home at the end of the day knowing it’s ok.”