Burn – One Year on the Frontlines of the Battle to Save Detroit – film review

Burn got it’s UK premiere when it was screened in London as part of the Labour Film Festival. A socio-political documentary on the fire service of Detroit it poses a stark warning to the UK as the possibility of a privatised fire service is posed.

From the UK to Australia, Turkey to USA, the 1st of May was the kick off for 2013’s Global Labour Film Festival with films about work and workers being screened across the world with Burn getting it’s UK premiere in London.

Burn is the story of a year in the life of the Detroit Fire Department and its fire fighters. Producer/directors Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez spent a year embedded with  Engine Company 50 on the East Side of Detroit, the city famous for car producers General Motors, Tamla Motown records and punk rock originators MC5 and The Stooges.

The glory days of Motown and GM seem long passed. Any fans of TV series The Wire will be familiar with the concept of ‘vacants’, streets of empty boarded up properties which blight Baltimore.

In Detroit our heroes, for that is how they are unequivocally portrayed in the film, fight a constant battle against building fires, many of which are caused by arson. For a city of just 700,000 people there are 31 structure fires per day compared to LA, a city of 4,000,000 (almost six times the population) which reports just 11 structure fires a day.

The charismatic and seemingly always jovial fire crews of Detroit would have their work cut out even if they had new equipment and all the fire stations were open. But in 60 years the city’s population has halved, not only destroying the tax base to properly fund the department but also leaving 80,000 properties empty and waiting to be torched. ‘It’s like Katrina without the hurricane”‘ remarks one fire fighter.

The firemen (they all seem to be men) seem to enjoy the risks and the camaraderie and there is a lot of bravado here. It’s like they are going to war with each burning building. They break into the buildings and fight the fires from the inside and we get to see it all through HD cameras mounted on the helmets of the self proclaimed ‘Badest guys in Michigan’.

You have to hand it to them, they are gutsy and just a bit rock n roll, which a fantastic soundtrack reinforces with aplomb. The opening scene of the movie sees Iggy and The Stooges ‘Gimme Danger’ kick in as the crew arrives at a raging house fire and there are more aural treats from John Lee Hooker, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Funkadelic to accompany the flames. You can really see the heat of the fires too even if you can’t feel it.

The fire crews are proud of what they do and proud of a city that has seemingly been left for dead. None more so than veteran Dave Parnell who drives the fire truck, operates the hose and is just months away from retirement. He’s just one of the charismatic characters that make Burn so engaging.

“If you live in the community in which you work you have an opportunity to see things differently. You have an opportunity to try and make change,” he says.

An everyday philosopher the other firemen mock some of his pronouncements but have a deep respect for him. Just months from retirement Dave is one of the symbols of devoted service,  having given his whole life to protecting people, juxtaposed with a lack of investment that almost seems vindictive.

Brendan “Doogie” Milewski, one of the junior members of the crew provides the other touching story of the piece. With his career cut short and life changed forever by a near fatal building collapse, we see how he and his colleagues adjust.

Tension comes when new commissioner Don Austin is recruited. Returning to his hometown after 30 years in Los Angeles he is seen as an outsider and doesn’t exactly succeed in his early attempts to ingratiate himself with the fire crews – forgetting which city he’s in when making a speech at a remembrance service.

He seems to genuinely care about improving things for the department although the fire fighters may not like him or his methods. He’s a figurehead for the cruel austerity which leaves fire engines leaking oil, and puts lives at risk but is also the one person charged with using limited resources as wisely as possible. He certainly challenges the brave and sometimes reckless way the crews  go about their work and gives us another perspective on both these methods, the sever funding cuts and how these intersect.

The screening of the film itself also saw some of these debates thrashed out by an audience packed with London fire fighters, the head of the Fire Brigades Union and senior management from the Fire Service. A lively debate ensued about what’s happening to the fire service in the UK with London under threat from cuts along with much of the UK.  Cleveland in the North East is looking at the possibility of mutualisation, the first step to a privatised fire service that would by definition put profits ahead of safety.

So, as well as being a socio-political document on a once thriving US city, for UK viewers Burn is a stark warning of where we could head if we aren’t vigilant and outspoken about protecting our fire service against cuts and degradation.

For more info on Burn visit the website. For updates on London Labour Film Festival visit its website.

All words by Willow Colios. You can read more from Willow on LTW here or follow him on Twitter.

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