On May 13, 1985 an armed conflict between MOVE, an insurrectionary anarchist group, and the city of Philadelphia escalated into the film’s namesake fire. By the time the smoke cleared sixty-one homes were burnt to the ground and eleven people from the MOVE organization, including five children, were dead. At times personal, at others bureaucratic and journalistic, the footage creates a time capsule for a much forgotten moment in American history.
Throughout much of this documentary we rely on the deposition of a young Michael Ward, the only surviving child of the MOVE organization. He sits carefully at the opening of the film, hands in pockets, surrounded by men in suits, and responds to questioning. With childlike candor he recounts his story as we watch; the camera positioned what feels like mere inches from his face. He describes his childhood with MOVE simply, and in stark contrast to news footage of armed protesters and violence. In many ways he becomes a backbone for the film providing some of the only insights from within the key organization. By the film’s conclusion we’ve relied on Michael for what must have been hours of questioning. At the end of the interview, he betrays a brief smile. It’s maybe the only smile we’ve seen of a young boy describing his childhood.
LET THE FIRE BURN Attempts to Answer the Question: Why?
We watch significant actors in the conflict recount the graphic details of the day’s events with dissociative calm.
Helicopter Pilot Richard Reed is seen explaining the approach angle taken to drop a satchel of C-4 explosives onto the MOVE headquarters over a model in a courtroom. Michael Ward describes the feeling of a bomb exploding over his head. Later, in diffusive political jargon, the Mayor of Philadelphia acknowledges his role in the bombing before a public hearing.
We see wounded police officers and firefighters on smoky urban streets. An unarmed black man is brutalized by a group of police. The reality is stark. To the modern viewer the many facets of racial conflicts are all too recognizable, in this writer’s view.
Many, many people were affected by this conflict: the bystanders, children, public officials and MOVE members, the cross-examiners, judges and reporters, the police. Their faces and voices, their hesitations and professionalisms all contributing to a picture as complex as it is bleak. By the film’s end you too may agree with this writer that there are few comforts.
Through archival news reels, interviews and court hearings Let the Fire Burn paints a vivid picture of an American tragedy. In telling the story, the filmmakers show restraint in adding their own voice to the narrative. Instead, they allow the footage to speak for itself. The details surrounding these events are complex and might otherwise be hard to take in. For those with interest in conflict and loss, there is likely no better way to watch what happened that day and appreciate a moment largely forgotten.
Directed by Jason Osder
Edited by Nels Bangerter
Music by Christopher Mangum
Watch this film on OVID.tv Let the Fire Burn
Images courtesy of Zeitgeist Films
About the Author: Rob Kent
Rob Kent is a cook by trade who tends to overseason his food. His free time is usually spent wrapped up in cultural goings-on and a desire to be places he's never been. He's inspired to write by the many metaphors for the way we live, found in the ways we eat.
Lately, he's also exploring the architectural styles of America's major cities and writing about them for Picture This Post.