RevFest 2013 – Burn

Burn

Directed by: Tom Putnam, Brenna Sanchez

Starring: Brendan “Doogie” Milewski, Dave Parnell, Donald Austin

Four and a half stars

Review by: Julian Wright

Not that anyone doubted the hero status of fire fighters, those who gallantly charge into burning buildings to save the occupants, their loved ones or precious possessions,  but Burn is a timely reminder of their unwavering heroism. But as we learn, behind the bravado there is also an abundance of little-seen vulnerability. Burn follows a group of fire fighters who live and work in Detroit (the run down city that has a high rate of unemployment, arson and unsolved murders) that battle more than just blazes, but also funding cuts and bureaucratic red tape.

Setting the scene with damning facts and figures (population plummeting, crime rate increasing), Detroit is laid out as a wasteland in need of salvation. Among the warm, relateable characters in the Engine Company 50 squad that have made it their mission to keep the city afloat are field engine operator Dave Parnell, who is on the verge of retirement and nursing his ill wife, and Brendan “Doogie” Milewski, who began his career young but faced early retirement when he was paralysed on the job. While they contend with their own turbulent personal lives, the men also have to deal with newly appointed Commissioner Donald Austin from Los Angeles, an outsider and villain type whose budgetary hands are frustratingly tied. Their vehicles are falling apart, and many are not roadworthy, but there is barely enough funding to pay them their wages. Pleas for new equipment are constantly brick walled.

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Despite the daily adversities, the team’s comradeship, heart and endurance is admirable, but this is not a sugar-coated glimpse into the thankless profession of fighting fires. Doogie’s isolation, Parnell’s loneliness and everyone else’s constant frustrations are deeply felt. And the incessant potential for life threatening danger is wildly apparent. While this emotional roller coaster ride swings from one heartbreaking moment to the next, there is never a sense of depression or loss of hope.

But this is as much about a decaying city as it is the men that try every day to salvage it. When told to let abandoned properties burn to the ground, they get out their equipment and hose it down. They are the soldiers on the front line that know that homeless people could be squatting in any of these dilapidated establishments, further solidifying their sense of duty to their city and its people. Film makers Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez are granted astonishing access, with emotionally raw admissions from their subjects to real fire fighting jobs caught up close in widescreen format. It is one of the most cinematic documentaries, but never forgetting the human element. By the end of Burn, these men feel like family. Someone pass the tissues.

Burn screens as part of Revelation Perth International Film Festival on July 6 and 8.

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