Putnam, left, and Sanchez, co-directors of the documentary “Burn,” said they wanted to produce a character-driven film about the lives of Detroit firefighters.
“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.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.