It may be just a coincidence that “Burn” shares the same name as Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece about colonialism, but I could not help but think that the title of Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez’s documentary about firefighters in Detroit that opened yesterday at the Quad Cinema in NY alludes somehow to a kind of colonialism that has been imposed on one of America’s great cities. If Black America is an internal colony, as we unfashionable Marxists used to put it in the 1960s, then Detroit is most certainly its epicenter.
“Burn” has the subtitle “One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit”, a battle that arguably cannot be won. As a companion piece to “Detropia”, my likely first ballot nomination for best documentary of 2012, the film depicts the impossible odds facing firefighters against the backdrop of urban decay and bourgeois neglect depicted so graphically in “Detropia”.
The odds against the firefighters are unimaginable. The film’s website points out:
- Los Angeles, a city of 4 million people, sees 11 structure fires per day. Compare that to Detroit, which has 713,000 residents and 30 structure fires a day.
- Firefighters have a starting salary of $30,000 and haven’t seen a raise in 10 years.
When I was young, and when manufacturing-based cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh were at their height, firefighters enjoyed a good life with generous benefits and early retirement just like cops. But in the race to the bottom, state and city officials balance budgets through extracting Shylock type flesh payments from urban workers. One fireman from Engine Company 50, the focus of the film, confesses that if his pay drops by just 20 percent, he will be eligible for food stamps.
Equipment has suffered as well. Fire engines leak oil, firehouses are decrepit, and some boots need duct tape to be held together. Despite this, they soldier on trying their best to stem the tide of fires that threatens to make Detroit a nightmare worse than the South Bronx of the 1970s.
One of the more intriguing personalities that figure in the film is the new fire department commissioner Don Austin whose main responsibility has been to impose cuts ordered by Mayor Dave Bing. Austin is a native Detroiter and an African-American like Bing. The film depicts him browbeating the firefighters for incompetency, a responsibility that goes with the territory. Whatever his salary, Austin appears unfulfilled, especially when he is forced to vacuum the carpet in his office. The one janitor who had that assignment was canned in a recent round of budget cuts.
When the film was premiered in Detroit on September 28th, the firefighters in the audience booed Austin, who was there as well. In an October 1 interview, Austin laid out what he saw as the basic dilemma:
Q: You made the point in the film that Detroit has 80,000 abandoned structures, so how does the department manage fires knowing those structures aren’t all coming down anytime soon?
Austin: All we can continue to do is empty that ocean with a glass. That’s all we can do right now. Look, we got over at least 40,000 (of the 80,000 total) dangerous dwellings and it costs eight to ten thousand dollars per dwelling to tear them down. You’re looking at (tear downs) costing anywhere from 320 to 400 million dollars. Now, the other thing is that you could just keep throwing firefighters at (the problems with abandoned structures). A firefighter costs you, in Detroit, about three million dollars for a 30-year career. So the question I have to ask is do we continue (with business as usual?).
Seeing the issue in terms of dollars rather than human lives does suggest a strong affinity with Pontecorvo’s masterpiece after all. As Sir William Walker (played by Marlin Brando) put it: “That is the logic of profit….One builds to make money and to go on making it or to make more sometimes it is necessary to destroy.” A reminder of what some comrades used to call the once-great city: Destroit.
“Burn” will open in Chicago, Washington D.C., and Detroit on December 7th. Check the film’s website for scheduling information.
I confess that I requested a screener for “Magic Camp” for the same reason I requested one for “Make Believe”, another documentary about young magicians that I reviewed in April, 2011. I wanted to pass along the DVD to Can, my wife’s nephew, who is just like the kids in both films. When Can (pronounced Jan) was here from Istanbul last August, he regaled me with card tricks. As much as I enjoyed his performance, I was far more interested in talking to him about film, his latest passion. He is enrolled now in a communications program at a community college in the U.S. with the goal of eventually making it in film production.
Unlike Can, who is a strikingly self-assured young man, the young people spending a week in Tannen’s Magic Camp, held each summer at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania only appear confident when they are on stage. As one of the counselors states early on, many young people take up magic as a way of compensating for physical weaknesses or psychological insecurities. Chief among them is a teenaged boy who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. He discovered that when his hands and mind were focused on some sleight-of-hand exercise, the tics disappeared.
I would recommend taking your children to see the film although it will be an entirely different experience than going to see any of the Harry Potter movies that left me cold. Frankly, I think there is much more excitement in watching a real fourteen year old trying to make a real scarf disappear than watching CGI footage of Harry Potter flying a broomstick through the clouds.
Magic Camp showed this morning as part of the Documentary Film Festival at the IFC Center in NY. Check the official website at http://www.magiccampmovie.com for information on general theatrical release, which will likely eventuate before too long.