Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An Honest Look at a Tough Situation

Often the best way to tell a story is honestly and simply. That's the mode in the new documentary Burn, which has opened on a few screens across the country and premieres in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Sterling Heights, MI and Livonia, MI on December 7. This look at the situation of how the fire department in Detroit must deal with any number of crises is sincere in the way it shows this world, serious while never getting overly emotional.

The film deals with one specific crew, that of Engine Company 50, situated in Detroit's impoverished East Side. We are told in the first few minutes of the film that Detroit has more fires that any other city in America; sadly a good number of these fires are set by the city's residents. One fire fighter notes the various ways that individuals do this damage. "There's arson for profit, arson for revenge and arson for kicks."

Other fireman tell of the everyday mess they face in their area. "There are areas that look like bombs have hit" says one fireman; another talks of certain parts of the city looking like "Katrina without the hurricane."

The job of this crew is tough enough - we are given several excellent sequences in which the film crew manages to show us the dangers of their work from only a few feet away - but add to that the fact that the city's budget for the fire department has been squeezed dry. The film makers are smart enough not to hit us over the head with the financial problems in Detroit at the current moment - we know that the automobile industry there is struggling - so we can easily understand it when we are told that there just isn't the money from City Hall to fix aging fire rigs. So the firefighters are working with one hand tied behind their back.

Still, most of them wouldn't trade their lot in life with anyone, as they love what they do. They talk of the brotherhood of the crew, who spend 24 hours a day several times a week with each other. "We're like cowboys in a rodeo," one fireman comments.

One of the subplots of the film deals with a new fire commissioner, a native Detroiter who moved to Los Angeles and performed similar duties in that city. His immediate goal of course, is to trim expenses as well as try and acquire more money for everyday business. One of the ways he aims to do this is a controversial method of letting fires at vacant structures burn out. We're told that there are 80,000 of these structures in Detroit and while the mayor has plans to raze a number of these, there are still tens of thousands of these facilities remaining and the fire crew have to answer the call when they are ablaze.

The new edict seems to make sense - why endanger fire fighters' lives for a vacant building? - but as several crew members point out, you never know if there's someone in that building at any given moment. Indeed we see one fire where that is exactly the situation. Thus the station's crew chief and the commissioner are at odds.

It's a story line like this, where we see that things are not black and white, that help give Burn some added complexity. But to me the best thing about this documentary is the way that co-producers and directors Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez honestly deal with their subject. They don't treat the fire crew as heroes, as it too often done these days in television and in the theater. Rather they show them as hard working individuals with a job to do. It's a tough job and we see that in images - we're not pounded over the head with cheap talk. The film never gets overly emotional about its subject, rather it gives us a realistic view of what the world of a Detroit firefighter is all about.

The film is beautifully photographed - kudos to cinematographers Mark Eaton, Nicola Marsh and Matt Pappas - and is briskly paced. This is an engaging, well organized documentary that is a model for how a film like this should be made. Tell us the story, don't wrap it in some sort of fantasy world. By making the fire fighters into real people and not heroes (I'm sure that most fire fighters resent being called heroes), we the audience connect on a more direct level with these individuals. That helps give Burn the proper reality the filmmakers sought to achieve.

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