Like its intrepid firefighter subjects, Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez’s Burn initially seems juiced up on too much adrenaline. Early in this kinetic documentary intimately following a tumultuous year in the life of Engine Co. 50, Detroit’s most aggressive and overworked fire brigade, every shot resonates with a breakneck immediacy and danger. But the endless scenes of burning buildings and macho posturing merely provide an action-driven context for the filmmakers to deal with more personal topics like loneliness and resiliency. That these themes apply to multiple generations of men working together makes Burn an even more intricate work of nonfiction. Firefighters may be “social creatures by nature,” as one interviewee puts it, but the film manages to peel away that façade and reveal the collective frustrations of a profession fighting for its life one individual at a time.
The title wave of shocking statistics that frontload Burn explains the socio-economic factors that led in 2010 to an upsurge in arsons affecting entire Detroit neighborhoods of vacant homes. “I feel like I’m in the burning of Rome,” says Dennis Hunter, a senior firefighter, about the high number of fires his company responded to in the last year, nearly 30,000 to be exact. When almost half of a city’s population makes a mass exodus over the course of 50 years, as has happened in Detroit, this leaves a lot of properties unattended and vulnerable to crime and degradation. Another slightly enraged interviewee calls the situation, “Katrina without the hurricane.”
Putnam and Sanchez see this dire social situation as a jumping-off point to explore the lives of men undergoing drastic personal and professional challenges. Brendan “Doogie” Milewski, recently paralyzed after falling through a burning roof, struggles to regain leg mobility and self-dependency. Yet Brendan’s struggle isn’t purely physical; his frank interviews express a deep melancholy that stems from suddenly having his professional identity stripped away, forcing him to find a new sense of self outside the workplace. It’s a conflict he can’t quite measure in words.
Sadness and regret also permeates the words of Field Engine Operator Dave Parnell, a 32-year veteran firefighter. When his wife dies midway through the taping of the documentary, Dave’s plans for retirement are interrupted. Not only does his impending departure from the firehouse represent the end of an era defined by routine and purpose, it means entering a new phase of life alone for the first time. “You always expect things to last longer,” Parnell quietly muses after his wife’s death, a devastating statement that mirrors his haunting confession that opens the film: “I wish I could forget what my eyes have seen.”
Burn is rare in that it’s acutely aware and respectful of the individual struggle being waged by workers in a fire department undergoing massive changes in structure and policy. Newly anointed Fire Commissioner Donald Austin, a controversial figure with bold plans to solve the department’s budget crisis and emergency-response protocol, represents an interesting juxtaposition between the life and rapport of the fireman and their isolated, much maligned leaders. Austin lives alone, has no family, and dedicates himself to the job, but that seems to be the cost of advancement.
Most impressively, the film’s montage-driven editing scheme combines complex moments of emotional turmoil within countless sequences of intense firefighting, mostly shot in slow motion with a fish-eye lens that gives each flame a bendable, almost elastic quality—an effect that amplifies the immediacy of the social conflicts playing out on the screen. In this sense, Putnam and Sanchez pull off quite a coup: melding analysis on grand modern issues (communal anxieties and economic uncertainties) with a dynamic visual style, all within a framework of personal and collective professionalism at odds.