Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars
“Burn”, winner of the Heineken Audience Award for Documentary at TFF, takes a look at the firefighters of Detroit, a city where abandoned buildings are everywhere and arson is rampant. More specifically, directors Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez, reveal the ups and downs of fire fighting in the Motor City through the eyes of Engine 50. Ultimately Burn is a heartfelt and character driven documentary, that doesn’t lose sight of the larger picture of a struggling US city.
The directors of “Burn” introduce us into the company through a good cross section of figures within it. We first meet Dave Parnell, a field engine operator on the eve of his retirement after 33 years of driving the truck. He opens the film with the sage sounding “I wish my mind could forget what my eyes have seen.” It’s a beautiful and sincere statement but also brilliantly connects him to his younger colleagues who in quick edit repeat this mantra they’ve obviously heard during Parnell’s many years. The camaraderie among the ladder company is immediately recognizable here and the directors smartly establish the whys of these men’s chosen occupation when the risks are so great. The ladder company is their home away from home, they bicker and eat together like family and when the time comes they admittedly get an adrenaline kick from the actual fire fighting. Burn includes footage actually shot from the firemen’s helmets that is incredibly impressive.
Being able to capture the bonds between Engine Company 50 early on is crucial to the rest of the film, as we turn to how many sacrifices these men make and just how much help they still need. For all the dedication of the firemen, they are severely underfunded and often their equipment is in need of repair that’s not in the budget. In a city full of abandoned buildings, an ethical dilemma arises in the form of deciding whether or not it’s worth the hazards of saving a building “designed to kill firemen” or to just let it burn. The latter option is brought in by a new executive fire commissioner, Donald Austin, who to the film’s credit is treated really fairly despite clearly being seen by the Engine 50 men, as an outsider. Austin was born in Detroit but spent 30 years in Los Angeles. The let-it-burn policy will of course save on the company’s equipment but it reveals to us the dedication of the E50 men whose instincts it goes against. It’s hard to choose either well meaning side and the film rightly doesn’t try to.
A third focus shows explicitly what these men can face when we meet Brendan “Doogie” Milewski who at age 30 became paralyzed from the waist down after a wall in an arson fire collapsed on him. Putnam and Sanchez get an intimate look into his physical therapy process and he is completely candid about the struggles he now faces both physically and mentally. Doogie is grateful to have survived but neither him nor the filmmakers downplay the lost plans for his future.
At 85 minutes, “Burn” moves swiftly and yet in an amazing balancing act still manages to engage us in so many personal amongst the story of a city in need. These men give so much to the city they care about, it’s about time this dedication was shown to a larger audience.