Reviews

Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez

USA, 2012

Credits

Review by Victoria Large

Posted on 07 May 2012

Source Projected DVD

Categories The 2012 Independent Film Festival Boston

In Burn, a feature documentary culled from about a thousand hours of footage of modern day Detroit’s overworked and underfunded fire department, co-directors Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez vividly capture a staggeringly volatile situation. The city, which has seen a steep decline in its population over the past sixty years, has become something of a tinderbox, full of abandoned, dangerous buildings and high rates of arson and violent crime. Meanwhile, we see firefighters using equipment that’s held together by duct tape, many of them working second jobs in order to support their families. One of the film’s most striking images is that of a fire hydrant marked “Out of Service.” Yet while Burn is unflinching in its depiction of the hard truths of working one of Detroit’s most trying jobs, it is also a film that strives for balance, reaching for moments of heroism and hope. One senses that the filmmakers do this not simply to offer the audience comfort, but rather to present a fully realized portrait of a city on the brink—and the people fighting hard to pull it back.

Several distinct personalities emerge throughout the film, including immensely likable field engine operator David Parnell, who is preparing at the age of sixty to retire from the department and finds that he is facing the future with uncertainty. We also meet Brendan “Dougie” Milewski, a young firefighter who was paralyzed in a building collapse. Milewski’s interviews and doctor’s visits provide the film with some of its most quietly harrowing scenes, but to their credit, Putnam and Sanchez present Milewski neither as sainted martyr nor as a helpless victim. He becomes instead a three-dimensional human being facing an extraordinary situation with courage.

The filmmakers are also thoughtful in their depiction of Detroit fire commissioner Donald Austin, who returns to the city of his birth after a stint in Los Angeles. Austin at first seems poised to become the villain of the piece, initially coming across as out of touch with his department and the dire straits that his firefighters have been placed in. But as the film continues he emerges as a more complicated and sympathetic figure. A simple scene of Austin shopping for produce at a local farmer’s market and talking about his home city has lingered on my mind; it’s humanizing and well chosen.

Significantly, however, Burn is not exclusively about desperation or loss. Putnam and Sanchez also work to show the exhilaration that many of the firefighters feel on the job, using HD cameras mounted in the firefighters’ helmets in order to capture up-close-and-personal footage of the fires. (An early sequence appropriately features Iggy and the Stooges’ “Gimme Danger.”) We also get touches of comic relief, such as when we see a few instances of the firefighters letting off steam by dousing each other with water or slamming each other in the face with whipped cream pies.

The film offers a sharply detailed view of Detroit, but it also speaks to larger crises in American right now: fire stations around the country are facing problems similar to those seen in Detroit, and what’s more, the country’s view of what it means to be a public servant seems to have shifted. A firefighter expresses his dismay that firefighters, teachers, and policemen are cast in a negative light in the political arena, despite the vital and challenging nature of their work. It’s a troubling observation, one of the many worthy discussion points raised by this film. Ultimately, though, Burn doesn’t try to be a call to arms: it functions more as a needed wakeup call about the literal and figurative fires currently raging well beyond the borders of Detroit.

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