Movement, by Sarah Brinks
Let the Fire Burn is a powerful documentary about an incident in Philadelphia in 1985 when the police tried to evict a group of people calling themselves MOVE from a home in a residential neighborhood. Police action or inaction led to a fire that caused the deaths of five children and six adults and the destruction of over sixty homes. The story of Let the Fire Burn is told entirely told through archival news footage, footage of the public committee hearing, and the deposition footage of one of the only survivors Michael Ward/Birdie Africa.
The film uses a methodical approach of telling the story chronologically, filling in the gaps with title cards. The films structure is a big part of what makes it such a successful documentary. Let the Fire Burn tells the story from the late 1970’s when MOVE was evicted from their first compound through the events of the fire on May 13, 1985, and ending with a public committee hearing months after the fire. It helps to have the background of the first eviction so you understand what led to the actions in 1985 and the reactions of the MOVE members in the public committee hearing. Director Jason Osder and editor Nels Bangerter cleverly intercut footage and testimony so you see the many sides of the events as they unfold.
Another strength of the film is its ability to remain mostly neutral. First time filmmaker Jason Osder keeps the film at an even keel and allows to you make up your own mind about who the films’ villains and victims are. Osder takes the time to show how the innocent suffered as a result of both sides’ actions. The children raised by MOVE were victims and so were the homeowners who lived on Osage Ave where the MOVE compound was located and eventually burned. In a film made by MOVE and with Michael’s testimony we see that the children raised at MOVE were malnourished. Michael testifies that the children were not allowed to eat cooked food and even had to eat raw chicken. In the footage from MOVE all the children are naked and have distended bellies, MOVE members say it’s because they eat so much but that is clearly not the case. In the public committee hearing neighbors of the MOVE house described the indecencies and troubles they suffered living next to the compound and in the news footage of the 1985 fire you see how they were distraught at having lost their homes and all their possessions in a matter of hours due to the inaction by the police and fire departments.
Let the Fire Burn has an intensity to it that helps keep the audience engaged. The real life events play out like a modern thriller. The way the news footage of the days events are intercut with testimony from the public committee hearing is compelling. You see the confusion and the intensity of the real-time drama along with the carefully considered after-thoughts of the people involved. The news footage shows peoples reactions as the thousands of rounds of ammunition are fired into and from the MOVE compound. People described it as being like a war zone. The fire was actually started when the police dropped a two-pound bomb on the roof of the MOVE building in order to destroy a man-made tower on the roof. The onlookers and reporters are clearly shaken by the unexpected explosion and you hear Michael’s first hand description of being in the basement of the house when it is bombed and then begins to go up in flames.
The MOVE group is described as a cult, as terrorists, and extremists by elected officials and police. Some MOVE members describe the police as monsters and Nazi’s. Clearly no side was blameless. It is still unclear almost twenty years later who began the shooting on May 13, 1985. It is also unclear what the true intentions of MOVE were toward the neighborhood and the government. There was conflicting testimony between the Governor and the police chief about whether there was an order to put out the fire. The uncertainty of so many key points rests heavily with the viewer. What is clear is that many of the decisions made that day were terribly mishandled and as a result lives were lost.
I appreciated that film doesn’t only focus on the negative; it takes the time to highlight the positive actions taken that day. Officer James Behaier put himself in harms way in order to save Michael after her fell and lost consciousness running from the flames. Michael was only a little boy and Officer Behaier felt that he had to save him. Michael was one of two people to survive the fire at the MOVE house. In the committee hearing Behaier was praised as being the one man who brought any hope to the proceedings. We see Michael in his deposition video as a healthy boy who is clothed and appears to no longer suffer from malnutrition.
Let the Fire Burn is an intense documentary that plays out like a fictional thriller. First time filmmaker Jason Osder hit a homerun his first time out and I am eager to see what he does in the future. Let the Fire Burn is an intelligent film that allows its audience to make up its own mind about the events depicted while also engaging them emotionally. The archival footage is fascinating, and tragic, and harrowing all at once. Osders recognition that it was enough to tell story with just archival footage was a strong choice. Let the Fire Burn is one of the most compelling films I’ve seen this year and there is a lot to be learned from it.