Seeking out the

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Let the Fire Burn

Directed by Jason Osder
Produced by Jason Osder
Editing: Nels Bangerter
Music: Christopher Mangum
Runtime: 88 min
Release Date: 02 October 2013
Aspect Ratio: 1.78 : 1
Color: Color

I have a strong feeling that, as in 2012, my top film of the year is going to be a documentary. But unlike last year's The Gatekeepers, an outstanding documentary that derived its strength and authority from penetrative interviews with its subjects, Jason Osde's Let The Fire Burn obtains much of its power from the absence of interviews, narration, reenactments, and almost every other traditional non-fiction storytelling device.  Rather than looking back with hindsight and reconstructing an event from a contemporary point of view, Osde presents his account using only available video footage from the period. The story in question is as quintessentially American as The Gatekeepers was uniquely Israeli, but both films carry resonant political lessons that merit our careful attention. 

With riveting detail, Let The Fire Burn examines a deadly 1985 confrontation between the black liberation group MOVE and the police department and political administration of the city of Philadelphia. Osde and editor Nels Bangerter weave a clear and astonishing narrative by meticulously piecing together local news footage from the stand-off, and enlightening public testimony given five months after the incident by many of the people involved in it. This raw, immediate and unfettered footage makes it plain that both sides were at fault, and that the participants' inability or unwillingness to communicate with each other escalated the situation into tragedy. Before I saw the film, I had only the vaguest knowledge of the MOVE group and had no memory of the events depicted here. But I can certainly recall plenty of similar incidents involving radical groups or cults with comparably lethal and tragic endings, like the 1993 siege on the Branch Davidian ranch near Waco, Texas or the Ruby Ridge massacre that same year. There are so many examples of inept government forces colliding with violent, unhinged fundamentalists that the importance of a rational, honest, and detailed documentary like this one cannot be overestimated. 

With only a few simple titles to clarify the sequence of events, and without an omniscient, Morgan-Freeman-like narrator, let alone the views of historians or the hindsight any of the figures involved, Osde goes out of his way to allow us to make our own judgments. The proceedings unfold like a masterfully scripted courtroom drama combined with the fly-on-the-wall authenticity of cinéma vérité, and the characters who tell stories and answer questions over the course of the hearings defy easy categorization as raving extremists, thuggish cops, or corrupt politicos. Their flawed, multifaceted humanity shines through in every instance.

The hearings, like so many Senate committees, special commissions, and blue-ribbon panels formed to investigate and make recommendations, didn't result in any substantive changes or legislative reform in Philadelphia. Often when we see how little comes from all the time and money spent in these types of inquiries we wonder what the point of having them is. The existence of this film provides some kind of answer to that very understandable question. For if we are truly doomed to repeat the past when we don’t understand it, then not asking questions is no solution. Rather we should be revisiting recent history far more often than we do.