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Let the Fire Burn

Posted by martinteller on November 12, 2013

The residents of Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia had a problem.  The back-to-nature organization (cult?) MOVE had moved onto their block.  Neighbors were verbally abused via loudspeaker and intimidated by figures wielding guns patrolling the massive rooftop bunker on top of the MOVE house.  There were also suspicions of abuse, or least neglect, towards the several children in the house.  After previous confrontations with MOVE (including an incident where an officer was killed, a death for which nine members of the organization were jailed), police approached the group with caution.  On May 13th, 1985, the street was barricaded, residents were evacuated, and authorities told MOVE to leave the building.  They used high pressure hoses to try to collapse the bunker.  Gunfire was exchanged… to this day it is unclear who shot first, but police used over 10,000 rounds of ammunition.  A helicopter dropped a load of explosives on the roof and the building started to burn.  The hoses were off by this time… and they weren’t turned back on again until it far too late.  Only two people escaped that house.  Six adults and five children died, and the blaze engulfed and destroyed 61 surrounding buildings, the homes of innocent neighbors.

First-time director Jason Osder made a decision to build his documentary entirely out of archival footage, excellently edited from news reports, a MOVE promotional video, and footage of a committee hearing investigating the incident.  There are only sporadic, dispassionate intertitles to fill in a small piece of information.  The events are completely decontextualized… there are no talking heads, reflecting on the tragedy of 28 years ago.  The result is a wholly immersive experience, though one that leaves some questions unanswered.  What exactly was MOVE’s purpose?  What’s in that manifesto written by founder John Africa?  Did the group expand beyond Philadelphia?  But it’s not a documentary about MOVE, and if the film makes the viewer hunger for more information, that’s a noble end result.

The situation is very complex, with a number of unknowns and ambiguities.  One’s sympathies shift constantly when watching, and in the end no one involved looks good (except the officer who rescued young “Birdie Africa” from the fire… rewarded for his efforts with a case of PTSD and racial slurs scrawled on his police locker).  It’s just a matter of who looks the least bad.  At first MOVE is seen as a peaceful group trying to live an alternative lifestyle.  But as the film goes on, they appear more misguided and even sinister, taking on violent tendencies… the seeds of which were perhaps planted by prior police mistreatment.  There is also the disturbing probability of child neglect.  However, the authorities don’t come off any better.  Given the information in the film, it seems clear that someone among the authorities is not being honest about who started the shooting (although what’s most upsetting is that there was any shooting at all).  And there is the lingering question of who let the fire burn.  Someone — if not everyone — in the chain of command is lying.  Did the mayor really give the order to put out the fire?  Did the police commissioner really pass it on to the fire chief?  Did the fire chief really not get the message?  And even if we knew who is responsible, the sad truth is that you can never be sure who will make a bad decision until it’s too late.

And this is a film of very sad truths indeed.  This story is largely forgotten… I was 14 at the time, but I have only the vaguest memories of hearing about MOVE (and am most likely confusing it with something else anyway).  It is difficult to get a handle on what specific lessons we can learn from this film, but it’s clear that we must do a better job of communicating with each other, of having empathy and valuing life, of assessing a situation and coping with it.  This sobering tale shows us how tragic the results can be when we get it wrong.  Rating: Very Good (87)


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