Film Seeks to Tell Detroit FFs' Story

Filmmakers Brenna Sanchez and Tom Putnam spent two 24-hour shifts with firefighters assigned to Engine 50 in Detroit. They want to make a documentary about the city and showcase firefighters as the storytellers.


Filmmakers Brenna Sanchez and Tom Putnam spent two 24-hour shifts with firefighters assigned to Engine 50 in Detroit. They want to make a documentary about the city and showcase firefighters as the storytellers.

Financial backers were concerned there wouldn't be enough dramatic footage to hold viewers' interest -- that there wouldn't be enough flames and, frankly, the documentary would be boring. So, they gave them a little money to make a movie trailer, a teaser of sorts, to see whether there really was a compelling story to be told.

Their concern was unfounded.

In the short time the film crew was in the city, there were 10 working, box-alarm fires, including an explosive chemical plant blaze that provided some spectacular footage -- all in the two, 24-hour shifts.

Indeed, there was no shortage of fires and compelling footage.

That's sort of the point that Sanchez and Putnam, two Californian documentary makers, are trying to prove. Detroit is burning at an alarming rate and the only thing trying to stop it is the city's fire department.

The Concept

"Burn: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit," is a documentary in the making and the brainchild of Sanchez, who is a native Detroiter. She has a goal of documenting firefighters' efforts to save their city, squelching the all-consuming fire block by block.

"Detroit firefighters are very smart people," Sanchez said in a recent interview with Firehouse.com. "They're not irrational people. They wouldn't be doing what they're doing, fighting fires in Detroit, if they didn't believe the city was worth fighting for. They're staying right where they are, doing their jobs every day. It just tears your heart out. They don't want to walk away. They don't believe Detroit is just some black hole from which you walk away."

Neither do Sanchez and Putnam, who hope to raise funds for their documentary through donations from individuals and supportive corporations and organizations. They need some $90,000 to start filming in October and they are hoping critical acclaim for their 10-minute trailer will spur contributions to the cause. Firehouse.com is a sponsor to the project. As of Friday, Aug. 20, the filmmakers had raised $6,102.

It's important to the project that filming begins in October, a time when Detroit experiences a spike in arson fires, on and around "Devil's Night," the day before Halloween. The filmmakers want to be there for that and follow firefighters through four seasons, with the intention of releasing the documentary by Sept. 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the terrorists' attack on the United States.

"For me, as a Detroiter and an American, I see Detroit at a crossroads," Sanchez said. "It's an iconic city. People know it as Motown. They know about Kid Rock. They know about Eminem. Everybody has an idea of what Detroit is... we need to focus on what it can be."

Because Detroit is emblematic of what the country used to be - and what it can be in the future - Sanchez said it has a story to tell.

With firefighters as the storytellers, the 10-minute trailer sketches out what the full-length film will be.

It was released in July and in the first three weeks, it had been viewed by more than 65,000 individuals. The video is posted here at Firehouse.com and at www.detroitfire.org.

"If everyone who looked at it had donated five or 10 dollars, we would be filming by now," Sanchez said.

Sanchez and Putnam, who is also the director of "Burn," hooked up with the International Documentary Association (IDA), a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization which serves as the project's fiscal sponsor. Contributions to the documentary are payable to IDA, which uses PayPal to accept contributions, and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.

The Beginning

The concept for the project started in December 2008, when Sanchez was home for the holidays. On Nov. 15 that year, Detroit Firefighter Walt Harris was killed fighting a fire in a vacant home. The roof collapsed, inflicting fatal injuries on Harris and trapping colleagues.

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