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Motor City Appeals to Lawmakers Via the Screen

“Burn,” a harrowing documentary about Detroit firefighters, opens Friday in Washington, D.C., the latest nonfiction film to bring the Motor City’s woes to the screens of national policymakers.

The auto bailout’s currency as a political issue in the 2012 presidential election, and GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s Detroit roots, helped place Motown in the public consciousness. “General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead,” was a favored line by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. during the campaign.

Filmmakers certainly seemed to have noticed, too, and have released vivid documentaries, including “Detropia” and “Brothers on the Line,” that show a side of Detroit most non-residents never see.

Tom Putnam, co-director of “Burn,” said the impetus for the movie came over Christmas in 2008, when he heard the story of Detroit firefighter Walter Harris, who was killed putting out a fire in a vacant home.

“I thought, ‘Why is someone risking their life in an abandoned building?’” Putnam said. That question eventually took him to his co-director, Brenna Sanchez, a Detroit native, and the two decided to collaborate on a documentary that eventually became “Burn.”

The film started off as a straightforward spectacle project, something to highlight the sense of danger firefighters face every day. But once they began following the lives of the firefighters, they knew they wanted to produce a character-driven film to accompany the incredible footage.

“I thought we were making an IMAX [type] movie.  . . .  That changed when we met them, these guys,” Putnam said.

As the directors followed Detroit’s Engine Company 50, the project began to encompass the personal lives of the firefighters, the challenges of being a public servant and the difficulties of managing a city that is losing population but not obligations.

“This was a side of firefighters we didn’t think was being portrayed,” Sanchez said.

The footage does indeed distinguish their film, with the two directors getting help with the camera from their subjects.

The coverage of fires, which shows firefighters breaking down doors, outrunning smoke and flames, and dodging burning embers, was provided by firemen who strapped on helmet cameras. “We’re daring, but we’re not stupid,” Putnam said of getting an assist with the camera work.

Fewer People, More Fires

While “Burn” has spectacle galore, with heady firefighting scenes and heartbreaking tales of the men in the firehouse — one firefighter paralyzed from a fire struggles with rehabilitation; another’s wife dies shortly before he retires — the film also shows the strain the Detroit Fire Department is under as funding dries up but demands don’t.

It’s a story repeated in cities nationwide.

According to the film, Detroit had 1,800 firefighters in 1954, just around the time the city hit its peak population of 1.8 million. In 2010, the city employed 919 firefighters for a city of about 700,000. Fires per capita, though, increased 300 percent from 1954 to 2010.

Detroit’s dwindling population has resulted in nearly 80,000 vacant buildings, and neglect — and arson — leads to the frenetic fire load.

The directors said they knew the film needed to address some of these structural problems when they filmed a tense scene between fire Commissioner Donald Austin and members of Engine Company 50.

Austin challenges them to do more with less, saying that 95 percent of the department budget goes to pay them. Their reactions make for an uncomfortable exchange.

“That [scene] did make the focus of the film change,” Putnam said.

The firefighters acknowledge that Austin and the city’s administrators are in a tough spot, telling the filmmakers, “We get it. The guy’s in an impossible situation,” Putnam said. This is brought home forcefully when the film shows the fallout from budget cuts. Department headquarters has to lay off its only janitorial employee, and the camera catches Austin vacuuming his own office. Capital improvements and routine expenses — fixing equipment, firehouse roofs, trucks and even uniforms — are deferred.

The pressure pushes many firefighters to the brink.

Dave Miller, one of the men in Engine Company 50, wisecracks that if his pay is cut another 20 percent, he’ll be eligible for food stamps.

“What I don’t get is, when did we become the enemy?” Fire Chief Craig Dougherty asks in the film.

Help might be on the way. Some powerful allies the firefighters picked up along the way are two executive producers of the movie: Denis Leary and Jim Serpico, the creative team behind “Rescue Me,” the late FX television series about New York firefighters.

Some of the proceeds from “Burn” will go to the Leary Firefighters Foundation, which helps strapped departments purchase equipment.

The filmmakers hope their project, dedicated to Harris, the fallen firefighter who inspired it, increases awareness of the challenges the firefighters face.

“I do want to make a huge point. Civilian voters, city councils, administrators  . . .  need to see this film,” Sanchez said. “We think anyone who watches the film will say, think, ‘What can I do for my firefighters?’”

On the Line

Detroit’s longtime congressman, Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr., has previously shown interest in cinematic coverage of Detroit.

In April, Conyers hosted a Rayburn House Office Building screening of “Brothers on the Line,” a film that chronicles how brothers Walter, Roy and Victor Reuther helped shape the United Auto Workers in the mid-20th century. The film, which Conyers appears in, was directed by Sasha Reuther, Victor’s grandson.

In a letter inviting members and staff to that screening, Conyers praised the film as a “dramatic tale of one family’s quest to compel American democracy to live up to its promise of equality, resulting in a timely blueprint of successful social action.”

That attention to social justice is also a thread that runs through “Detropia” and “Burn.”

In “Detropia,” directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing profile several Detroit residents, including a retired teacher who runs a local blues bar and a local union president trying to save the plant where he works. Their idea was to bring attention to the decline of the middle class by showing what happened in the city that gave birth to the black middle class.

Attempts to reach Conyers for comment about the recent slate of Detroit films were not successful. Detroit’s other congressional representative, Democratic Rep. Gary Peters, said he wanted to see the films first before commenting on them.

“Burn” will play this week at the AMC Loews Georgetown 14 at 3111 K St. NW. More information can be found at

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