April 28, 2014

Let the Fire Burn

Jason Osder, 2013
Let the Fire Burn documents the very much overlooked and forgotten 1985 standoff between members of the Philadelphia-based radical political group MOVE and the police. Entirely using archival footage, very much like 2010's Senna, the doc is a stream of mostly news footage and really puts you in the middle of the crisis. Those not familiar with the organization do not really learn a lot about the group's philosophies from this film (but thats why we have Wikipedia). What you do learn is that they are a Christian-oriented group focused on minimalist living standards, crying out against technology by not using electricity and heating their headquarters with wood-burning stoves. They are profoundly anti-establishment, at times antagonizing the city police to engage in some kind of a confrontation. When the film opens with footage of the deposition of child Michael Moses Ward as he recounts the traumatic night, he immediately draws sympathy just knowing that there were children involved in the incident. And there certainly were children involved in the organization, as you see them spouting off parts of the MOVE doctrine as the matriarchal figure stands beside them.

While the MOVE members appear to be educated (successfully representing themselves in court on more than one occasion), at times they come off as very adversarial and threatening to the neighbors around them. These neighbors must suffer with constant political banter over loudspeakers mounted outside the building. They have to endure the eyesore of a boarded up building that basically looked condemned. The tension builds to the day of May 13, 1985 when the Philadelphia police section off and station themselves outside the Osage Avenue row house where a dozen MOVE members are hiding and local government attempts to evict them from the premises. The outcome is a destructive gripping series of events that literally went up in flames, and how the film got its very fitting title.

It's such an interesting style in terms of documentary filmmaking. No cloudy interviews made years later. No reenactments. Just raw footage. It adds a certain purity to it, really puts you in the moment. By watching the look of shock on a news reporters face when they are surprised by sudden automatic rifle fire, you get a real sense of distress as if you are watching it live. There are clear inconsistencies when it comes to the Philadelphia Police Department's handling of the whole event, and the documentary does a terrific job of really laying out the facts. Although the MOVE members are not innocent by any stretch, the film still leaves you feeling troubled and disheartened.

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