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.
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.”
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.