Let the Fire Burn, which won Best Editing in a Documentary Feature and nabbed Jason Osder Best New Documentary Director at the Tribeca Film Festival, manages to tell the supremely tense and tragic story of the longtime feud between the city of Philadelphia and controversial radical urban group MOVE coming to a deadly climax in 1985 — entirely through archival footage. “Piecing the components together, and only sparingly deploying intertitle cards for clarity, Let the Fire Burn brings this 28-year-old tragedy front and center again – vividly, viscerally,” wrote Steven Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It’s “a first-rate piece of forensic filmmaking,” adds David Fear in TimeOut.
For Osder, who teaches in The George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and helps run a post-production company, Let the Fire Burn is his first feature documentary, but reflects a sober maturity. The film has its broadcast television premiere on Independent Lens Monday, May 12 at 10pm (check local listings), a day before the 29th anniversary of the day things came to a head in Philadelphia in 1985. Osder spoke to us about the film.
What led you to want to make this film?
I was eleven years old, growing up on the outskirts of Philadelphia when the fire happened. I remember being truly scared. I was struck that the children killed in the house (burned alive) were my own age, living in my own town. Their parents and the police had utterly failed to protect them. I knew even as a child that the children were not to blame for what happened to them and that a fundamental injustice had occurred.
How do you think revisiting this story now (or visiting it for the first time, for the many Americans who didn’t know about it) can lead to a meaningful discussion on how government agencies react to sects and other communities outside society? Have things changed in the ensuing decades or could the MOVE bombings happen again?
Yes. I think the MOVE story illustrates some essential questions that are still very relevant. Where in the world today is violence being done to people with no regard for their humanity? As police and military gain access to more deadly weapons, what are the safeguards as to how these weapons can be used on civilians? How is democratic society to deal with groups that are in open opposition to it and willing to risk their own lives and the lives of their children for their cause?
Although a cliché, it does seem like an example of being doomed to repeat the history that we do not remember.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?
Aside from doing justice to the complexity of the story for the screen, the other big challenge was getting access to all of the archival footage.
The film does indeed make incredible use of archival material to tell this story. Did you at one point debate weaving in modern interviews, too? (A more typical style choice for historical documentaries.)
Yes. I had shot a handful of key interviews. I felt that if I tried to include too many points of view it would become very bland, so I set but interviewing people who were not just witnesses but real participants to the events – people for whom it represented a turning point in life. For instance, I had interviewed Michael Ward, Ramona Africa, and James Berghaier. I was working on getting Wilson Goode, but he had not yet agreed. It was when I started working with the editor, Nels Bangerter, that we realized there could be a different way to tell the story.
What impact do you hope Let the Fire Burn will have?
I hope that this film can help make this event more part of American history. It is one of those cases where we need to know our history in order to learn from it.
From an ethical or moral point of view, I hope the film causes people to look at the world around them more critically.
Was there anything you’d hoped to include in your film but didn’t make the final cut?
I thought that there would be more of a thru-arc for the police officer that breaks ranks, James Berghaier. In my opinion, James’ actions that day demonstrated a lot of courage. He also paid same pretty severe consequences. I think he still comes across in the film, but I thought there would be more in there about his motivations, backstory, and aftermath.
There are always more details about the story, but thematically this stands out.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
When I first watched the tape of Michael Ward being deposed, I knew I had a film here. Over all of the years, that footage has only become more compelling and meaningful for me.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
Generally, audience and critical response has been very good. The film is provocative and provokes a lot of discussion. The tone of that discussion (from those that I have participated in) is often very thoughtful and reserved. Audiences seem compelled to discuss both the details of the story and the larger meanings, but also sensitive to the delicacy of the issues and the strong feelings they evoke.
Ramona and members of the MOVE family have seen the film, as has James Berghaier. I would not presume to know all they feel or think about it, but my relationship with them continues to grow and evolve.
To my knowledge, none of the city officials involved have seen the film.
Now that you’ve tackled this complex subject for your first feature film, do you have plans for another documentary? What are you working on next?
Yes. I have begun working on a project with a co-director who is a colleague at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, Will Youmans. The subject is the assassination of an Arab-American activist in Santa Ana, California in 1985. It is an unsolved murder and today a new group of activists is pushing the Justice Department to solve it. It’s still very early and I can’t go into too much detail at this time.
What are your three favorite films?
Chinatown, Spirited Away, Night and Fog.