Jason Osder's "Let the Fire Burn" is a documentary about the only aerial bombing carried out by government forces against American citizens inside the U.S.A. during the 20th century.
On May 13, 1985, an ongoing feud between the Philadelphia Police Department, city hall and the organization MOVE culminated in a shootout. The police dropped an explosive device on the row house where MOVE members communally lived and the group was headquartered. The gunfight and explosion resulted in the deaths of 11 people -- including group guru John Africa and five children -- at the MOVE headquarters.
After the reportedly four-pound military-grade explosive was dropped from a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter on the bunker atop the MOVE home, the fire spread, wiping out the block. The conflagration burnt down 61 houses in the largely African-American community. Only two people who'd been inside the MOVE house when the battle erupted survived.
As depicted in Osder's 95-minute documentary, MOVE appears to be an organization that combined two distinctive New Left tendencies: Black Power and the countercultural "back to the land" movement, although these Black nationalists returned to nature in an urban setting. According to the film, this meant that MOVE's Osage Avenue residence had no electricity, although there was a phone and members had vehicles, as well as at various times arms, which may or may not have been operational and apparently weren't automatic. MOVE's children are seen nude (in some scenes their genitals are blurred) and appear to be raised collectively; while never spanked, we're told children were disciplined by being hollered at.
John Africa was the group's messianic leader. He and various male and female members wore long dreadlocks or Afros. As shown onscreen, MOVE members come across as abrasive, brash, dogmatic militants who often did not answer direct questions and spoke in doubletalk. According to the film, by 1985 MOVE members had become the neighbors from hell, provoking neighbors with unsanitary compost piles and frequent obscenity-laced messages blared via loudspeaker or bullhorn.
"Let the Fire Burn" examines the long-smoldering clash between authorities and MOVE. It also explores who gave the command to bomb MOVE's household, and, as the nonfiction film's title indicates, who ordered Philly's policemen and firefighters to not put out the ensuing fire.
Osder tells the tumultuous tale by using black and white and color found-footage going back four decades, derived largely from a 1970s documentary; local TV news, notably from live reports by NBC affiliate WCAU and ABC's Channel 6 Action News; videotaped sessions of the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission; and a video recording of the deposition of Michael Moses Ward, aka Birdie Africa -- the only child to survive the catastrophe, although his mother, Rhonda Africa, died in the melee. (The 41-year-old Ward died Sept. 20, 2013, of what appeared to be an accidental drowning in a hot tub aboard a Carnival cruise in the Caribbean.)
The documentary's cast of colorful characters include: Ed Rendell, who may be familiar today to readers as an MSNBC talking head but in 1985, before he became Pennsylvania's governor, was Philly's District Attorney. Rendell used the word "terrorist" to describe MOVE. We also see Fiire Commissioner William Richmond, Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor, and a variety of Philadelphia PD officers, including James Berghaier, who heroically rescued Birdie from the blaze. Subsequently, after the words "Nigger Lover" were scrawled on Berhaier's locker, he retired from the police force.
The politician who was mayor during the bombing of MOVE was Wilson Goode, an African-American, who says, "It is my view I knew it [the explosive device] would be used," and assumes responsibility for the tragedy -- although not necessarily for the "decision to let the fire burn."
The use of found-footage is also known as a "compilation film"; Soviet filmmaker Esther Shub is accredited with pioneering this cinematic genre with historical documentaries such as 1927's "The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty." While this technique gives the impression of objectivity, through the selection of which footage to use -- and not to use -- plus the arrangement of the images and sounds, the filmmaker can impose a subjective vision on the material through the editing process. Indeed, "Burn" won the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival's Best Editing in a Documentary Feature award.
One thing missing from "Burn" is a fuller explanation of what that mysterious group was all about. Perhaps this is because Osder couldn't find more background in the archival material available to the director. If this is the case, the filmmaker could have filled in the blanks by conducting his own original interviews with MOVE survivors and others knowledgeable about the enigmatic organization, but it does not appear that Osder shot a single live action frame for this film composed of others' work. For example, an interview with Ramona Africa, who -- along with Ward survived the 1985 bombing -- is a spokeswoman for the still extant MOVE, might have been informative.
In any case, "Burn" is the latest in a cinematic surge of features and documentaries with Black themes. "Let the Fire Burn" unfolds like a thriller about the case that turned the so-called "City of Brotherly Love" into "The City that Bombed Itself."
Zeitgeist Films' "Let the Fire Burn" screens 8:00 p.m., Oct. 9, followed by a Q&A with director Jason Osder, as part of the Arclight DocFest in Hollywood; opens Oct. 18 at Landmark's Nuart Theatre in L.A.; and will then be theatrically released nationwide.
The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell, The Hawaii Movie and Television Book, published by Honolulu's Mutual Publishing, drops Nov. 25.