Judge Michael Nazarewycz is hungry for a wiz wit from Jim's.
"There was a decision to let the fire burn."
You cannot have lived your life in Philadelphia or the surrounding area, and be of a certain age, and not have experienced certain things—things like Gene Hart calling Broad Street Bullies games and Harry Kalas calling Wheeze Kids games. Things like eating cheesesteaks and cruising South Street and, yes, running the steps—a la Rocky—of the Art Museum. But there are some tough memories, too—some bad times in the city. One of those times—possibly the worst time, at least in recent history—was living through the MOVE crisis. I was a teen when all of that came to a head, but my recollection of it is not what it could be. That's why I jumped at the chance to fill in some memory blanks via this documentary.
Facts of the Case
In the mid-1970s, in the city of Philadelphia, John Africa founded an Afrocentric organization that would eventually become known as MOVE. The group's main tenets focused on "life" and "truth," and they engaged in green practices (before calling it "green" was a thing); they shunned most technology. As time passed, row home neighbors grew concerned about the group's behavior, citing bullying, profanity-laced tyrades over bullhorns, squalid living conditions, and allegations of child neglect and/or abuse. In 1978, when authorities stepped in, a standoff was reached that resulted in shots exchanged and a police officer killed. Nine MOVE members were arrested in connection with the incident. MOVE contends the officer was hit by friendly fire and that a city conspiracy put their members in jail. Evicted from their home, the organization relocated to a row home on Osage Ave.
Seven years later the same complaints arose but the situation was exacerbated by the presence of bunkers that the MOVE residents built on the roof of their house. Tensions escalated and authorities started moving in on May 13, 1985. When teargas failed to motivate the MOVE members to evacuate the house, the Philadelphia Police Department dropped a bomb on MOVE's Osage Avenue residence, starting a fire the likes of which the city had never seen, and hasn't seen since.
My, how my memory gaps have been filled. Let the Fire Burn is an amazing documentary both in the story it tells and how it tells that story. These really are separate but equally critical documentary criteria. I've seen numerous documentaries—a couple of which that have been critically heralded—where the story is fascinating but the telling of it fails to captivate the viewer. This is not the case here. In his directorial debut, Philadelphia native Jason Osder does the smartest thing he could have done in presenting this tale of conflict, crisis, and corruption: he gets out of the way of it. He doesn't tell the story; he lets the story tell itself, and he does so by compiling archival footage mostly from three sources.
The first source is news footage from various local television networks. Some of this footage offers one-off reports that keep the viewer on top of things that have transpired. Other footage—footage of the events of May 13 as they unfolded—gives the viewer the real-time, "you are there" rush that on-the-ground journalism offers. We've become somewhat used to reporters being embedded in dangerous situations, but we've also become used to those reporters being prepared for it. There's something quite different about seeing violence erupt near reporters who are more accustomed to covering press conferences and PTA meetings than they are volatile and violent street wars just blocks away.
The second source is video footage of public hearings held in the aftermath of the events. This footage, which includes testimony from police, firefighters, politicians, and two former MOVE members, sets a baseline procedural thread that also acts as a respite between shots of live violence. The "tell us what you remember" theme of the hearings, at times, belies the "here's what happened as it happened" reporting of the first source, creating great interest. The third source is the videotaped deposition of Michael Ward, aka Birdie Africa. Birdie was a 10-year-old MOVE member who survived the ordeal, escaping the Osage Avenue house before it burned to the ground. His testimony puts you inside MOVE and inside the house, yet does so with chilling delivery because of his age.
Osder interweaves all of this footage, moving from source to source to source, and builds an entire story out of it, from MOVE's beginnings to the aftermath of May 13 that left 61…sixty-one!…row homes burned to the ground. He does so with no narration and no current-day interviews, and with a sparing use of title cards to fill in small gaps where footage either didn't exist or didn't flow. It all works so very well.
His masterstroke, though, is the second act, which focuses on May 13, up to and including the dropping of the bomb. Osder uses the entirety of the heart of the film to add layer after layer of clip and statement and report and testimony to slowly build the tension and drama of the day to the point that I simply did not move in my seat because I wanted so badly to see what would happen next, even though I already knew what the result would be. Osder successfully executed the ultimate in documentary filmmaking: he put me there, and he made me want the journey, not just the destination.
Osder closes out the film with a third act that never points fingers, but gives enough information to make you come to your own conclusion about what happened that fateful day.
From a technical presentation perspective, Let the Fire Burn is pretty remarkable, particularly the Dolby 5.1 audio. Not only is the film constructed using footage that is 25-35 years old, the footage is from multiple sources and shot in various environments. Even the old newsroom footage, which is, by far, the best produced source footage, is from different television networks. The sound is incredibly balanced from source to source, which is critical given the sheer number of changes made. The 1.78:1 Anamorphic video is also great, allowing a clean presentation of dated imagery while preserving the feel of its age. Only very, very old footage, shot mostly in b/w, is in poor presentation shape, but what little of that there is is relegated to the early parts of the film and does nothing to diminish the viewing experience.
In addition to the film's trailer, there are two other extras. The first is a 40-minute Q&A with the director, which was held after a theatrical screening. Questions of all depths come from the audience and Osder, who stands alone onstage, fields them all well. The other extra is a 14-minute interview with an adult Michael "Birdie Africa" Ward. The interview relies on Ward's recollection of the events. A title card at the start states that the interview was to have been used as part of the documentary was later scrapped. This was a shrewd move, as any current-day interviews with Ward would have been terribly out of place with the rest of the film's footage.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The first act—which is, essentially, an introduction to MOVE and a summation of the years leading up to that fateful day—is a little murkily told. I think this is mostly an unfortunate byproduct of Osder's storytelling approach. There isn't the trove of footage—thus not as a clear a narrative—to establish the background the way there is for telling of the events of May 13, but Osder does his best. Enclosed with the disc is a written timeline of events that excellently summarizes what you need to know. Read it first; it will help you navigate the first act.
Whether you are a Philadelphia native (or neighbor) with an interest in revisiting the past, or a documentary buff looking to learn some history about the City of Brotherly Love that goes beyond the Liberty Bell and the Broad Street Bullies, this documentary is a must-see.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
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