Back in 1950, Detroit was one of the great and thriving cities of the United States. Fast forward sixty years and you can see the burning of Rome. From executive producer Dennis Leary (Rescue Me), Burn, which premiered this past week at TriBeCa film festival in New York, follows the Detroit Fire Department as they deal with recent budget cuts and a rapid exodus from the city. Directors Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez spent a year with the Detroit Fire Department and amassed over one thousand hours of footage, resulting in an absolutely amazing documentary like never before seen.
Burn is an honest, un-staged documentary that sheds light on one of the most tragic issues in America. While we are trying to cut spending and reduce the deficit, the government has left public safety out to dry. Detroit’s firefighters are understaffed, under-equipped, and underpaid. It is a sad day for America when our firefighters have to work second jobs and people die because our cities could not provide the proper equipment to the brave men and women who fight fires. On the surface, Burn may be about the firefighters saving a city that many have given up on, but once the film really gets going, it develops into a thrilling and emotional character-driven documentary.
Amongst all the brave men Putnam and Sanchez capture on film, three stories stick out and help to make the documentary more than just about a decaying city. Early on we are introduced to a sixty year old engine driver on his last year before retiring. When his wife tragically passes away, Putnam and Sanchez are able to capture his local community and his coworkers rally around him in a moment of great empathy and community. The second story that stuck out to me was that of the young firefighter, nicknamed Doogie, whose tragic accident on the job has left him a quadriplegic. Doogie spends the film working to regain control of his body below the injury point. His hard work and determination mirrors the city that just will not let itself die.
The final man we encounter is the man at the top: Detroit’s new fire chief, Donald Austin. Though Austin is not in the burning buildings himself, his job is not void of emotionally taxing work. Austin has been given the role of saying no to people who desperately need a yes. As he points out in the film, there is no money to buy new axes, or pumps, or generators, or even repairs on broken vehicles. Ninety-Five percent of the Detroit Fire Department budget goes to pay salaries; there genuinely is no money for the city that needs it most.
Using fireman as cameramen, the production team was able to capture some amazing footage inside the burning houses. Because of this, Burn contains footage like nothing that has ever been made before it. While most cities fight fires from the outside, DFD is famous for fighting them from within. The DFD firefighters do not just talk about their boldness, but outright brag about it. Most of the fires these men are fighting are in vacant houses which have been abandoned for months or years. This point immediately brings to mind the key question of the film: why?
Why is the DFD risking lives to put out fires in buildings that are abandoned. To defend their dauntless manner of fighting fires, the DFD firefighters make the case that many of these “abandoned” houses have squatters in them. On the other hand, much to the firefighters chagrin, Austin, and the mayor of Detroit, have taken a “Let It Burn” philosophy, rather than risk the mens lives to save some wood and brick. Since the film finished shooting just this past January, the cities new policies have not been in effect long enough for us to see real results.
One of the key things that I look for in a good documentary is whether or not it made me want to get up and do something; Burn indeed did. So, follow them on Twitter, like them on Facebook, and If you would like to support the DFD or other fighters around the country, check out the Leary Firefighters Foundation.
Make sure to keep checking in with BME over the next four days as I continue to bring you coverage of IFFBoston. For more up to date coverage, follow me on Twitter:@AMaier92!
Venue: Independent Film Festival Boston
Production Companies: Apostle/TBVE/Cinereach
Cast: Aksel Hennie, Synnøve Macody Lund, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Directors: Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez
Producers: Tom Putnam, Brenna Sanchez, Bruce Wayne Gillies
Executive Producers: Denis Leary, Morgan Neville, Jim Serpico, Austin Wilkin
Directors of Photography: Mark Easton, Nicola Marsh, Matt Pappas
Music: Alessandro Cortini, BC Smith
Editor: Kevin Jones, Morgan R. Stiff, Miranda Yousef
No Rating , 80 minutes