Burn: A documentary illuminating the dire state of Detroit

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, I clicked open my secondary browser, Firefox and on a spur-of-the-moment impulse, I went to Netflix. I often forget I’m paying eight dollars a month for a service I don’t use enough. I browsed through some of the flicks and settled on Burn, a documentary about the Detroit Fire Department and the overreaching problem facing Detroit: bankruptcy. More fires occur in Detroit than anywhere else in the United States and a large number of them occur due to arsonists and within vacant homes and lots.

The documentary is well-made with a hot soundtrack (featuring the above track from The White Stripes among others) over beautiful montages of the firefighters fighting fires and the firefighters themselves are engrossing characters. And to be fair, fire on film lends itself to beautiful cinematography, but still.

Ostensibly, the documentary deals with the problems of budget cuts, the crumbling nature of Detroit (for instance, how in 1950, there were 1.8 million residents to 2010’s paltry 750,000), and the personal tragedies that happen as a result of run-down equipment and stretched-thin fire houses (one firefighter was paralyzed, a three-year-old girl was killed in a fire). However, what the documentary is really about is the brotherhood that develops within the smaller subgroup of the DFD and the larger subgroup of the Detroit community.

For all the failings inherent in the DFD and Detroit itself, those in the film still love both and want to do what they can, even with hands tied, to fix it. They have no interest in abandoning a city they grew up in. There’s something idyllic and romantic about the notion, although perhaps a suicide-pact akin to Romeo and Juliet.


I also couldn’t help, but sympathize with the new fire chief the mayor brought in from Los Angeles. First and foremost, he has to face the scrutiny of not being a member of the “brotherhood,” despite being born and raised in Detroit. Secondly, he literally has to worry about putting out fires unable to worry about fire prevention. There’s a mountain of problems and they grow more problematic by the week. He is probably ideal for the task, though, as he has no wife and no children, so he can sink hours into rebuilding the DFD and Detroit.

It’s shocking to see the deteriorated and dire state Detroit is in. Most of the firefighters take on second jobs to meet their familial obligations. Most of the neighborhoods, as one person said in the documentary, look liked bombs hit them; it’s that bad. What can you expect when there is a max exodus of people and factories from a once-thriving city? Arson, crime, vacancies and the like that make the city ripe for fire and the inability to adequately fight them.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but I shudder to think about what Detroit could be like in another decade or more if allowed to continue its downward trajectory. Which, I think, is what makes this documentary a cut above others: it doesn’t pretend to offer solutions. The documentary presents the firefighters and their families and their struggles and despite all the turmoil they do face, we end the documentary on the retirement of a thirty-some-year veteran. There’s cake, dancing in the streets, hugs all around and then the call comes in; he goes on his last-ride-along and a heavy rock beat kicks in seguing to the credits.

In other words, there’s a sense of optimism. I guess it’s the notion that the brotherhood in the DPD and the familial structure inherent in the Detroit community will prevail…somehow, some day, eventually, right? Maybe; I think it’ll take more than good will and close bonds, but alas.

Well-worth giving this one a whirl if you’re looking for a documentary with a bit of a kick to it.

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