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An American inferno

Filmmaker Tom Putnam tells story of Detroit firefighters in new documentary


by: SUBMITTED - A Detroit firefighter heads toward the flames. On Putnam's first night of filming, the fire department faced 10 fires.The fires never stop burning in Detroit.

Once an American super city, a metropolis of muscle and economic power and soul central for American pop music, Detroit today faces a decay that threatens to send it up in flames. Firefighters have the task of keeping this from happening, and “BURN: One Year on the Front Lines in the Battle to Save Detroit,” a powerful, action-packed new documentary film by Tom Putnam, tells their story.by: SUBMITTED - TOM PUTNAM

“’BURN’ is about Detroit firefighters, who are charged with the thankless task of saving a city that many have written off,” said Putnam, a native of Lake Oswego and a graduate of Lakeridge High School. “But ‘BURN’ isn’t just about Detroit firefighters. It’s about all national first responders whose budgets and pensions are on the chopping block.”

People can see this riveting story for themselves when fundraiser screenings of “BURN” are held at Cinema 21 in Portland at 4:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Following the film, Putnam will be on hand to answer questions from the audience.

His story is stunning. Putnam does not spend any time going over the well-worn path of explaining how Detroit got to such a sorry state of being — white flight, urban decay, loss of the auto industry — and instead drops viewers into an inferno.

“When you watch a war movie you don’t spend an hour explaining how we got there,” Putnam said. “You just drop into the action with the platoon and view the larger issues through their eyes. Fifteen seconds into the film we’re running into a burning building, and the issues and challenges Detroit faces grow organically out of that.”

For Putnam, who previously knew nothing about firefighting, it was a literal baptism of fire. His firefighters are heroes, even while dealing with fire, smoke and heat.

“Their boots have holes in them,” Putnam said. “Engines break down on the way to calls, and basic equipment sometimes doesn’t work. The first night we filmed we went to 10 fires. That’s almost as many as the entire city of Los Angeles gets in a day.”

The fiery streets of Detroit couldn’t be more different from the relaxed greenery of Putnam’s hometown of Lake Oswego. But he did manage to lay the foundation for his remarkable career as a journalist-filmmaker by working for the Lakeridge student newspaper. He showed a lot of promise early and was always intensely focused on his career goals.

“Tom was great to work with on the Newspacer,” said his longtime friend Jennifer Hungerford, now an attorney with a practice in Lake Oswego. “He had a great eye for the visual side of the paper — layout, graphics, etc. And this was at the very beginning of desktop publishing, so he was able to bring the Newspacer into desktop publishing.

“The clips I’ve seen of ‘BURN’ just blow me away. I think Tom and his team are telling such an important story and doing it in a manner that will have huge impact.”by: SUBMITTED - The poster for BURN provides a good first taste of Tom Putnams extraordinary new documentary about firefighters fighting to save Detroit.

From his Lakeridge years, Putnam went on to earn degrees in film and journalism, “so making documentaries has been a great way to put those two things together,” he said. His films have been released throughout the world and have played at more than 500 film festivals. His work includes the award-winning “Marwencol” and “Red White Black & Blue,” which was broadcast on PBS.

All of his past movie-making experience was necessary to get “BURN” made.

“Every movie is hard. But this one was the hardest,” Putnam said. “We spent a year pitching it to broadcasters and financiers, and everybody turned it down. So we decided to raise the money ourselves, through charitable donations.

In raising money for his film, Putnam showed as much tenacity as any Detroit firefighter, and now “BURN” is being shown to great critical acclaim, most recently at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

Most importantly, Putnam has earned kudos from the audience he most wants to satisfy.

“What I’m proudest of are the firefighters’ reactions, since they were always going to be our toughest critics,” he said. “And that’s been just overwhelming. If you’re able to see a film with an audience full of firefighters, which will be the case with both Portland screenings, it’s quite an experience.”

For more information about “BURN,” go to the website detroitfirefilm.org.

by: SUBMITTED - The night makes a dramatic background for a firefight in Detroit.