Catching fire

By Allan I. Ross

Documentary on cash-strapped Detroit Fire Department has power to inspire change

If it weren’t a true story, it would seem like a clich: The dead city handling its own cremation, one abandoned building at a time. For decades, Detroit has been slipping from obsolescence into an all-out hell on Earth. But according to the Detroit firefighter documentary “Burn,” not everyone has given up on the decaying metropolis just yet. 

“It’s like Katrina without the hurricane,” says one of the firefighters of Engine Co. 50 as he surveys the third-world landscape consuming his neighborhood block by smoldering block. And he’d be right, if the eyes of the world were turning compassionately toward it as they did to New Orleans. Instead, Detroit has become an international punch line, a torched effigy to everything that’s wrong with America. 

More than just a post-mortem on a city that was once a worldwide industrial powerhouse, “Burn” is, most important, a call to arms for a nation to reform its civic policies. A better metaphor could not be found than seeing a city burning to the ground and not having the money, the manpower or more than a passing interest to put itself out. The city’s been all but abandoned — a population down to about 700,000 from 1.8 million in its heyday — and there’s hardly enough tax revenue to keep it protected. In “Burn,” we spend a year with the front line of men and women risking their lives to keep Detroit from going up in smoke. 

Watch as the firefighters wrap their boots in duct tape to seal the holes worn into the toes. Wince as you hear about firefighters who work for less than minimum wage and haven’t had a raise in 10 years. Fume as you follow news reports of a little girl who died because the fire truck that showed up at her blazing home didn’t have a ladder on it (that truck was in the shop for repairs). Read between the lines: help, help, help.  

Ostensibly, “Burn” is a documentary about a fleet of perpetual underdogs fighting a losing battle. But, like any art meant to instill social change, look a little closer and you see it ain’t just the city that’s broken — it’s the system. Producers/directors Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez have crafted a raw, unapologetic look at what happens when everyone just gives up and moves to the suburbs, leaving the keys to the city to the thieves, murderers and arsons. 

Left unsaid is the racial unrest and charges of corruption that have plagued the city since the 1960s. The names “Coleman” and “Kwame” are never even uttered. The name that is flaunted, fairly or not, is Donald Austin, who took over as fire chief two years ago and summarily held culpable for the department’s woes. Yes, in a speech, he accidentally calls the city “Los Angeles” (his previous post). And sure, he does seem overly optimistic about a department whose payroll accounts for 95 percent of its budget. But you realize Austin is just a fall guy, sent in to give the city a face to hang its hatred on. He will be gone eventually — probably with no more money coming in, but no less — and the fires will burn on.  

Much like the similarly inflammatory “The Thin Blue Line” and “Paradise Lost,” “Burn” has the potential to inspire change.  Some documentaries are meant to enlighten. Some, merely to entertain. “Burn,” however, was built to enrage. It is the very best kind of documentary filmmaking, and a must-see for anyone who gives a damn about the state of the state. 

“Burn” is showing exclusively at Studio C! in Okemos for the next month. After the March 16 showing, there will be a talkback session with some of the firefighters from the film, giving you a chance to see what a real hero looks like.