About halfway through the harrowing documentary "Burn: One Year on the Frontlines of the Battle to Save Detroit" there's a moment where multiple shots of derelict structures are shown to accentuate one of the biggest obstacles the city's firefighters face in their job — Detroit's 80,000 vacant buildings.
One in particular stuck out: the century-old Forest Arms apartment building — a beautiful, unique U-shaped structure in Detroit's Midtown neighborhood that was nearly destroyed by a fire in 2008. (It's set for renovations that should be completed by next year.) It's a building I'm sort-of familiar with, as I've lived on the block it sits on for three of the last four years. While attending Wayne State University, I'd walk to class each day and pass by the sign for the old Peoples Records location and wondered how much money I possibly would've spent if my favorite record store in town had still been located there.
Other than that, I have no experiences with fires. Before I moved to Detroit for school I lived in a suburb about 15 minutes due west, a city of 100,000+ named Livonia. The only fire I can remember happening in Livonia was of a diner I frequented that was destroyed last month from a fire that started in its kitchen.
Oftentimes, we hear about a city-suburb divide in Metro Detroit. And — speaking for myself here, although I assume others who grew up near me could agree — after seeing "Burn" this weekend, that stuck out like a piece of rotten produce at the local grocer. I have a disconnect toward the experience of dealing with structure fires that some residents of Detroit and its workers endure. "Burn" is set on Detroit's east side and affirms what I only knew in brief — that structural fires are commonplace across portions of the city.
Thing is, growing up in the suburbs, the way I familiarized myself with Detroit's extreme issue of fires was through local broadcast news. The scene is a familiar one: A reporter standing outside the scene, dressed to the nines, informs thousands of viewers at home that there is a fire in Detroit, and then, soon after, the broadcast shifts to sports, weather, traffic, and before you know it, hey, prime time television is on. The brevity of it all still seems sort-of bizarre.
"Burn" goes beyond that and opens the viewer into a world much deeper than the lens of the local broadcast news cameraman can expose. It documents a year inside the life of Detroit Fire Department's Engine Company 50 — where some firefighters haven't seen pay raises in two decades, and, for those who are starting out, earn $30,000 per year. During the film, you learn that most workers have to supplement their income with second jobs to support their families.
For the uninitiated on how rampant the problem is, the film is a downright befuddling sight to see. It's a first person glimpse into the experience of what a firefighter faces every time the bell at the station goes off.
The website for "Burn" notes that Detroit, with 713,000 residents, sees 30 structure fires per day. Some context: Los Angeles, with 4 million people, sees 11 structure fires per day.
And according to one member of Engine Company 50 in the film, he'd estimate 95 percent of Detroit's fires can be attributed to arson.
That's just nuts, man.
Directors Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez pieced together striking personal narratives of two individuals that garner a lot of focus in film, Dave Parnell, a firefighter soon approaching retirement, and Brendan "Doogie" Milewski who was paralyzed after being crushed by a brick wall that fell on him while fighting a ferocious blaze both leave a lasting impact after the film is over. But the narrative soars and hits a high-note with multiple scenes of firefighters battling infernos from the view of cameras attached atop their heads. Those moments are truly spectacular to see. (A firefighter boasts at one point that long before the directors showed up, people flew from around the country to watch the DFD fight blazes.)
The film manages to nail some points I felt another Motor City-based documentary from last year, "Detropia," missed entirely. "Detropia" managed to tell the bleak, familiar urban blight tale of the city everyone is familiar with — the widespread poverty, the auto industry's severe decline, the profound abandonment on many levels — except it lacked a spark; something for viewers to really walk away with when it was over.
By the time "Burn" ends, it feels like someone took an old silver pot and banged it across your forehead a few times. The reality of it all stings, hard.
Because far away from the glowing news surrounding downtown Detroit and Midtown, my current home turf — where excitement swirls around the moves of people like Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert who is snatching up skyscrapers, and Little Caesars founder Mike Illitch who plans to build a new arena for his Detroit Red Wings; and where a Whole Foods is soon to open (yes, this is a big deal here) — there's still an ineffable amount of work that needs to be accomplished in the city for it to see an eventual turnaround. (There's another talking point — the sheer pride displayed by Company 50 for Detroit and its members belief that the city will eventually turnaround.)
Upon leaving the theater, one thing that stuck as well was the objectivity displayed by Putnam and Sanchez on the entire matter. Detroit Fire Commissioner Donald Austin, who was brought in from the Los Angeles Fire Department, is shown in a bad light as the realist who's forced to make the tough decisions no one wants to hear. Could the department use a new fire truck? Sure. At $700,000 a pop, though, everyone is forced to work with what's on hand. Grab the bubblegum and aluminum foil because that's how the light fixtures on each truck are going to be fixed.
Later, Austin is shown vacuuming his office and says he had been forced to lay off the one-person janitorial staff. Not the toughest of trying times one may have to face, but it's a small testament to the reality of the situation.
And the film certainly didn't come across as an attempt to cast itself as a rally call of support to unions that are forced to succumb to dwindling wages and dreary work conditions. One scene, members of the brigade are en route to a union meeting that, based on the context given in the dialogue, no one was looking forward to.
Minutes later, Austin is shown haranguing a group for his perceived lack of care they show about the department's equipment. For each station, he says in the film, about 96 percent of costs is for labor, leaving the remaining four percent for equipment. So, he asks the group, why on earth was a fire truck parked on an Amtrak railway, only to be totaled by an oncoming train moments later?
Regardless of what some think may be the cause of Detroit's financial distress, or even the state of Michigan (which recently passed right-to-work legislation that went into effect last month), it was hard to not leave questioning the priorities of our society. The money isn't there to hire more firefighters, functioning equipment, or new trucks? OK, well how do you begin to squash the problem. Mayor Dave Bing wanted to demolish 10,000 vacant buildings by the end of his term — and that goal has nearly been achieved. Well, That's only 1/8 of the vacants across the city.
Sure, money is the controlling variable in any question regarding public services, government, etc. Still, I wouldn't like to think that we live in a society where adequate sources can't be provided to firefighters or police officers to safely patrol our neighborhoods.
Go see this if it's coming to an area nearby. I don't think you'd be disappointed. More info can be found here.
Photo credit yosoydemichigan, Flickr