Let the Fire Burn Dir. Jason Osder

[Zeitgeist Films; 2013]

Styles: documentary, archival footage
Others: Our Nixon, Black Power Mixtape

     Readymade (manipulated) TMT-generated tag lines:

     Let the Fire Burn is crushing.”
     “Incredible and devastating.”
     “Excellent doc.”
     “The best doc of the year.”
     “It’s so good, but I have so little to say.”

That last one is me. My pushy helpful editor (whose additions appear in brackets) advised me: “Maybe you should review it without worrying about having anything to say. (After all, first-time director James Osder doesn’t have anything to say, either, in a way — it’s found footage that the public has already seen, no effects, no voiceover, traditional editing.) Why did it move you? Why is it an important film? Why should anyone care?”

Why it moved me:

Why it’s an important film:

Why everyone should care:

Watching Let the Fire Burn [a film about the impossibly violent police stand-off with MOVE, including the rescue of one of their youngest members by the cop pictured above] I laughed, I cried… I didn’t laugh, actually. This is a bleak film made bleaker by the lack of editorial intervention or commentary of any kind. It’s a pure documentary, a composite of historical documents. The film bears witness again, identically, to an event that must be important to us, if anything is. (Was it recognized as nationally important when it happened? I wasn’t alive yet, and I don’t know.)

Jeff Miller: I fell asleep listening to the police scanner. It was shortly after midnight on April 19 of this year when my friend messaged me and asked if I knew what had happened in Boston. This was three [four?] days after the Boston Marathon bombing, so I was initially kind of confused. Um, of course I knew? But a quick Google search informed me that he was taking about something that was still developing: two men had killed a university police officer, committed a carjacking, and engaged in a shootout with police — all in the span of a few hours. Rumors followed that the men responsible were the same responsible for the bombings.

Social media kept up with the events as they unfolded. People uploaded videos of distant gunfire to YouTube and tweeted pictures of damage caused by errant bullets. (I’m uncomfortable linking to this content, but it’s still readily available online.) Four hundred miles away, I sat in my Baltimore apartment in the dead hours of morning, flipping between CNN and the local news while streaming Boston news coverage on my computer. I also had Twitter and Facebook tabs open, with my buddy keeping me updated on Reddit, to maximize the info I was receiving. Before the night was over, I’d begun streaming a police scanner from the area where the events were unfolding. “Make sure we are not chasing ghosts,” I heard an officer say.

Osder edits and sequences Let the Fire Burn like a thriller, aiming for the same kind of captivation news media do. But when the terror of the multiplex manifests at the neighborhood mini-mall, we’re reminded that these things really happen, and men like Officer Berghaier are out there every day chasing ghosts.

And men like the rest of the PPD are out there every day making ghosts.

I first learned about MOVE when I read Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Death Blossoms and this Wikipedia page. MOVE were black green anarchist vegans. They were back-to-the-land folks living in the city of Philadelphia. They vehemently opposed techno-capitalist brainwashing (with rhetoric that often comes off sounding cultish, in spite of John Africa’s rebuttal to a reporter that “it’s not a cult; it’s an organization”). I have strong sympathy for them.

[But maybe it’s easier to have sympathy at this distance.] Some footage from the local news and the proceedings of the Philadelphia Special Investigation (MOVE) Commission reveals that the group broadcast profanity-laced slogans and taunts from loudspeakers from their second base — on a residential street (Osage Ave.) in a primarily black neighborhood — at all hours of the day. They seem to have made no friends among their neighbors there.

[Nor among the cops, who beat the organization’s unarmed members…

…and burned down an entire neighborhood to kill a handful of MOVE members, many of them children.]

No other film has inspired in me simultaneously such hatred for the police and such love for an individual police officer.

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