BurnReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/29/12 10:30:17
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2012: It's sad to say but true - Detroit has been known for its fires for a long time, and the recent economic tumult which has hit the Motor City especially hard has not slowed that activity down in the least. "Burn" doesn't sugar-coat what a difficult task the city's firefighters are faced with, but does a fine job of not painting it as hopeless.The statistics it presents at various points are staggering - though Detroit was a city of 1.8 million in 1950, that population has shrunk to 713,000. As a result, there were 80,000 abandoned buildings when Burn began filming in early 2011. As the number of fires has trended upward, the number of firefighters has stayed roughly the same. A staggering percentage of building fires are arson, because as one veteran puts it, a gallon of gasoline still costs less than a movie ticket. These and other numbers are spread throughout the movie rather than presented as a large chunk of data, but each still has its effect, making sure that the audience grasps the enormity of the situation. The film's subtitle - "One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit" - does not seem like hyperbole.
If this is a war, then directors Brenna Sanchez and Tom Putnam are embedded in Engine Company 50, located in the city's East End. The filmmakers do a good job of introducing the audience to the company as a whole to the extent that they can, although an 80-minute movie doesn't give them enough time to go in-depth with everybody. In fact, as it turns out, only one of the three men whom the film focuses on is stationed there. That's Dave Parnell, a Field Engine Operator with over thirty years of service planning to retire and travel with his wife. Brendan "Doog" Milewski used to work there, but was paralyzed on the job the previous year; we follow his rehabilitation and grappling with a life that has strayed far from his plans for it. Time is also devoted to Donald Austin, the newly-appointed Fire Commissioner who, while Detroit-born, is seen as a suit-wearing outsider from Los Angeles by the rank and file.
That's a good cross-section, although the three stories only occasionally intersect with each other. Their individual tales are well-told, though; the threads following Parnell & Milewski (as well as a tragic incident that happens midway through the film) are fine examples of how it is possible to put together this sort of personal, emotional narrative in a documentary without the result feeling exploitative or intrusive. Sanchez and Putnam are also very mindful of how two sides can be at odds without either necessarily being in the wrong; watching Austin initially stumble in his dealings with the public and the men of the Detroit Fire Department even when he's likely making the right call is occasionally wince-inducing precisely because it is handled in an even-handed manner.
Though much of the film's running time is spent in conversation or in observing the times between fires, it's the action shots that are going to be remembered, and rightly so. One firefighter, early on, tells us that Detroit firefighters tend to work from the inside out compared to most fire departments, so that it's just as common to see water blasting out of windows as in. HD helmet cams (several of which melted during filming) take the audience inside buildings that, as Captain Craig Dougherty puts it, are apparently designed to kill firefighters by their tendencies to collapse in unpredictable ways. There are several occasions when Putnam and Sanchez are able to scramble multiple camera crews to get some impressive coverage.Many of the film's subjects live in the neighborhoods they defend, giving the audience another look at just what sort of challenge they're up against (the city is really not in good shape at all) both as firefighters and residents. It's a tough job, but one which "Burn' represents very nicely.
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