Let the Fire Burn

A scene from the documentary "Let The Fire Burn." (Zeitgeist Films / October 18, 2013)

"Let the Fire Burn" is a brooding, disturbing documentary about an inferno that becomes an enigma. It earns its considerable impact by telling an unnerving story and leaving it, in ways both daring and effective, fundamentally unresolved.

The events detailed here are some of the most unsettling in modern American urban history. On May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia police, stymied in a standoff that stemmed from a bitter conflict with a radical group called MOVE that had sputtered on and off for more than a decade, dropped an incendiary device on the row house that was the group's headquarters.

Intended only to demolish a bunker on the roof, it was an action that, in Mayor Wilson Goode's understated words, did not go as planned. An enormous six-alarm conflagration resulted, not only killing 11 MOVE members, including five children, but also destroying 61 houses as it laid waste to three entire city blocks, leaving an estimated 250 people homeless.

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In an ordinary documentary, we would of course see footage from back in the day, but there would also be a strong talking head element. Recent interviews with survivors and analyzers would put things into perspective so we could get a handle on what it all means.

Director Jason Osder, who worked on "Let the Fire Burn" for a dozen years, started out with that kind of documentary in mind but, unsatisfied with the nature of the interviews he was getting, opted instead for what he calls "a pure historical pastiche."

What that means is that this film is composed exclusively of visual elements from 1985 and earlier. If any factual clarification is necessary, it appears as type on the screen. This approach might not work across the board, but for a subject as literally and figuratively incendiary as the MOVE bombing, it feels exactly right.

It also helps greatly, as filmmaker Osder has acknowledged, that this situation offered a wide variety of visual material to choose from, including a pre-bombing Temple University student documentary on MOVE, police surveillance footage and numerous reports from local TV news crews on the scene that fateful day.

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Osder and his fine editor, Nels Bangerter, have structured "Let the Fire Burn" around two specific visual elements that the film returns to again and again.

One is a long video deposition given by Michael Moses Ward, who as a child of 13 was one of only two survivors of that awful fire (he died last month).

The other, even more involving, is tape of an extended televised hearing conducted by a special investigative commission empowered by Philadelphia to find out as best it could what had happened and why.

Through testimony at the hearing and earlier filmed reports, "Let the Fire Burn" introduces us to MOVE, a group whose founder — the rarely seen, self-styled John Africa — characterized it as "an organization," not a cult. Though its members were largely African American, it was in its early days as much a back-to-the-earth movement as a black separatist one, believing the current political system was corrupt and breaking up the sidewalks on its property to maintain contact with Mother Earth.

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MOVE had the bad luck to run head-on into Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia's conservative, confrontational mayor, who was horrified by the group and not averse to taking action against it.

Clashes between police and MOVE in 1976 and 1978 resulted in highly controversial deaths, one on each side, and seemed to exacerbate MOVE's willingness to be confrontational, a situation that irritated the group's African American blue collar neighbors as much as the authorities.

Except for the horrific toll it inflicted, almost everything about what happened on that fatal May 13 is open to speculation. It's not clear why MOVE reacted the way it did to police presence, either on that day or earlier, and the way key city officials responded to the fire as it developed is the subject of conflicting testimony. Elements of what happened on that day may forever remain a mystery, and this involving film puts us right in the middle of it.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Let the Fire Burn'

MPAA rating: Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Playing: At Nuart, West Los Angeles