by M. Faust
Subtitled “One Year on the Front Lines in the Battle to Save Detroit,” Burn is one of what seems like an endless stream of documentaries exploring the problems of that beleaguered city, though even more so than films like Detropia, it uses the Motor City to explore problems that face the rest of the country as well, if not (yet) in such dramatic proportion.
Having lost nearly two-thirds of its population in the past 50 years, Detroit is now the site of 80,000 vacant, often abandoned buildings. For many reasons those buildings burn. The city has the distinction of having more fires than any other American city—up 300 percent in those same five decades—but only half as many firefighters to battle them.
Worse, the shrinking budget means that they must make do with equipment that is failing but can’t be replaced. In a heartwrenching scene late in the film, a woman who lost a child in a fire that couldn’t be extinguished blames the city’s fire commissioner, who is already struggling to do an impossible job without enough resources. His job, he sighs, is “managing misery.”
Burn features footage taken over the course of a year with cameras attached to the helmets of firefighters, much of which is undeniably spectacular. You can’t help but feel a bit guilty at a common human reaction, the fascination with watching a fire roar out of control.
It’s not the only time you’re likely to feel guilty during this engrossing documentary. Knowing how little these men make for such a dangerous job (starting salary is $30,000) and seeing the perils they face—part of the film details the struggles the despair as a 30-year-old fireman copes with rehabilitation after he loses the use of his legs in a fire—you may find yourself fighting off the thought that no one in their right mind would do this for a living. Thank god, of course, that they do, though in the film’s most poignant moment, one reacts to a call for more budget cuts by asking, “What I don’t get is, when did we [public employees] become the enemy?”
Watch the trailer for Burn
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