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Burn: Detroit FD documentary is on fire

The filmmaker is barnstorming across the country to generate support for large-scale distribution

They are kind of like a vaudeville troupe, Brenna Sanchez told me. This somewhat rag-tag band travels from city to city hawking t-shirts and posters, working the crowd and showing their film.

Sanchez, along with Tom Putman, co-directed and co-produced "Burn," the documentary about the Detroit Fire Department. Sanchez is a Detroit native who came to this project with no background in the fire service, but may leave a profound mark on it.

I caught up with Sanchez and three of the Detroit firefighters featured in the movie at a stop on their vaudevillian tour just outside Chicago. They played in three suburban movie theaters, all to full houses.

The roughly 400-seat theater where I saw "Burn" was at capacity for the first showing and slightly less for the later showing that night, Sanchez told me.

This was my first time seeing "Burn," and it is here that a careful writer would hedge his bet — hit on both the good and bad points of the movie without going overboard one way or the other.

To hell with all of that.

This was a great movie. In fact, good taste and professionalism prohibit me from inserting the expletives to fully describe how much I liked this movie. I liked it first as a firefighter, but I also see a fair amount of independent films, and it passes muster at that level as well.

I won't give away the recipe to the secret sauce for those who've not yet seen "Burn." Suffice it to say, there's no shortage of fire porn, real and compelling characters with incredible stories, and conflict and drama that drive the story.

Sanchez and Putman are excellent storytellers. They could have very easily taken sides or covered up the characters' "warts." But they didn't and their story is so much more gripping and deeper for that balanced approach.

For example, in addition to following the firefighters from Station E50 for a year, Sanchez and Putman also shadowed newly installed Executive Fire Commissioner Donald Austin. Austin, Sanchez said, had given them unfettered access to both his professional and personal life.

Crowd reaction
After the showing, I hung around to watch the audience and how they interacted with Sanchez and the Detroit firefighters. The audience members, mostly firefighters, stood in line to meet, have photos with and get merchandise autographed by the Detroit firefighters.

Remember, these guys aren't Hollywood movie stars. They're firefighters, much like those standing in line to meet them. Yet, there they stood, waiting for their chance to get a handshake and offer a kind word or two.

This type of awe is typical of what Sanchez is seeing in other theaters. Most times, she says, the crowd stands and applauds and keeps her there for a long time during the post-show question and answer session.

So, with such overwhelming response, what's the point of the vaudevillian tour?

The movie industry does not believe there is a market for a movie about firefighters, Sanchez told me. And so, "Burn" does not have the financial backing for large-scale distribution.

Chasing dollars
To raise capital and demonstrate that the movie does have mass appeal, they've set off on this barnstorming tour. In Chicago, at least, it has paid off as AMC Lowes agreed to show the movie for one week in December at one of its downtown theaters — a huge win for "Burn."

To help finance the tour, Sanchez says she approached nearly every manufacturer in the fire service looking for financial help. Only MSA stepped in with significant contributions.

One MSA representative told me at the theater that when you tally up the actual cash, plus labor and materials, the company's donation to the cause comes to about $35,000.

Sanchez is hoping firefighters in and around the tour stops continue to come out and support "Burn." And so am I, but I have no financial stake in the movie.

An important film
I want this movie to succeed because I believe it may be that tide that raises all boats. It's a powerful enough movie to alter overall public perception of firefighters.

Think of the iconic image of the firefighter carrying the child from the rubble of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. Think of the images and stories that came out of 9/11. Think of how those events changed public opinion.

OK, the problems in Detroit are chronic, not a single-incident trauma like Oklahoma City or 9/11. Yet this 90-minute film condenses that chronic illness into a trauma, and that can move public opinion in the direction that benefits all fire departments.

Yes, I think this film is that good.

Support this film; watch it for the fire porn if that's your thing. But know that this independent documentary film may hold the magic elixir we've been searching for since the global recession set us on a spiral of budget cuts exemplified nowhere better than in Detroit.

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