Two documentaries show Detroit in flames

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Last week the inexhaustible Docurama Films issued a DVD of Detropia, a politically pointed but often lyrical documentary about the economic collapse of Detroit that premiered here last year at Gene Sister Film Center and had some scattered exposure afterward. Just last month it was followed by the firefighting documentary Burn: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit, which will no doubt be showing up on cable and video soon as well. It's not unusual for two films to land on the same subject within months of each other, but these two are particularly interesting in tandem because they both examine the problem of empty housing in blighted neighborhoods, and what might be done to rescue a city that's become dangerously depopulated.

Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who made the Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp, Detropia is one of the best documentaries I saw last year, recording the city's collapse in the lives of real people and weaving opera, soul, and hip-hop sounds around an indictment of income disparity in America. One of its most potent scenes shows workers for the manufacturing company American Axle showing up for a union meeting at which they're served some bitter news: the company will slash wages a devastating $2.50 to $3 an hour or close the plant. Incensed and grasping for their self-respect, the workers refuse even to bring the matter to a vote; a subsequent title tells us that American Axle made good on its threat.

In a town that's lost half its manufacturing base in the last decade, vacant properties have become a civic problem all in themselves. A local Fox News reporter shows a house being taken down by a crane, noting that there are 100,000 abandoned homes and lots in Detroit. A later shot shows smoke billowing into the sky in the distance as a home burns, a radio commentator on the soundtrack declaring, "We're getting to a tipping point in this country." Arson is epidemic. Tommy Stevens, owner of the Raven Lounge on Chene Street, inspects the burned-out house across the street from his own and explains that the city is afflicted by pyromaniacs, weirdos who set fires and then masturbate as the houses burn.

In this sort of crisis, with 40 square miles of abandoned land inside the city limits, Mayor Dave Bing announces the strategic framework for his Detroit Strategic Framework Plan, which aims to move people in from blighted areas and turn the land over to community farming. At a public hearing, long-time residents rage against city hall (one accuses the city of trying to 'burn us out" before turning to the consolidation scheme). On a porch in a long-gone neighborhood, local dudes guffaw at the idea of turning their streets into farmland: "Drop the motherfuckin' tomato, or I'm gonna shoot!"

Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez's Burn, which played briefly at 600 N. Michigan last December, is pretty gripping stuff: the opening sequence makes potent use of the Stooges' "Gimme Danger" as the firefighters of Detroit's Engine Company 50 attack a burning home. These guys are cowboys; they fight fires "from the inside out," an aggressive strategy that means bringing the hose as close to the center of the fire as possible. They average 30 calls a day, a staggering amount. Many of them are second-generation firefighters, and some of them grew up in the neighborhood. As one young firefighter sadly puts it, "I feel like I'm in the burning of Rome sometime."

Dave Parnell, the 60-year-old veteran who's about to retire, counts eight vacant houses on the block where he lives. As these guys explain, more vacant structures means more fire. "It's called fire load," says one. "There's more things to burn." And more people to burn them; the company commander, Craig Robinson, speaks frankly about the arson problem. "There's arson for profit, arson for revenge, and then there's just arson for kicks," he explains. Another firefighter wonders at the tragedy: "It's beyond me why people would want to burn their own city down."

The big political event in Burn is the May 2011 appointment of the blunt, socially challenged Donald R. Austin, a 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department, as executive fire commissioner for Detroit. In a meeting, Austin notes there are 80,000 vacant structures in Detroit (a discrepancy from the other film), but the mayor's modest removal efforts—3,000 a year—mean that the fire department will be in a perpetual state of siege. His strategy is to deprioritize vacant homes that don't pose a threat to other structures, and fight those fires "in a defensive mode," which essentially means letting them burn. To the men of Company 50, however, this is criminal foolishness; as they attest, you never know who might be squatting in these vacant buildings, and lives will be lost by standing on the sidelines. It's a horrifying predicament, one that brings Burn (view the trailer here) in line with the class consciousness of Detropia and makes you wonder if the poor in Detroit are as expendable as the buildings.

J.R. Jones writes about DVD releases on Tuesdays.

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