5:17 PM EDT, October 17, 2013
Assembling a found-footage documentary is more than a matter of finding an apt running order or paying attention to how one fragment of testimony may echo inside another. It's a matter of finding the bleak poetry underneath the news event and keeping focused on the human beings making the decisions that can lead to tragedy.
"Let the Fire Burn" is a superb addition to the found-footage documentary genre. Now in a two-week run at the Siskel Film Center, director Jason Osder's grieving account of the deadly police assault on the MOVE collective's fortified Philadelphia row house works small, continuous miracles with a variety of existing footage culled from local TV news reports; commission hearings held in the wake of the film's central event; and, as a through-line, pieces of legal deposition footage capturing the heartbreaking vulnerability of one of the two survivors of the deadly siege, 13-year-old Michael Ward.
Ward was also known as Birdie Africa, one of the disciples of MOVE's founder, John Africa. The militant group made few friends in its neighborhood as it built up a menacing-looking compound atop the row house, and Philadelphia police had spent years locking horns with MOVE prior to 1985. Then, on May 13, 1985, 11 MOVE members, adults and children, died in a fire ignited by a satchel full of explosives dropped, via police helicopter, onto the row house roof. Sixty-one homes in the vicinity burned to the ground.
The film, Osder's first, tells so many stories so well. It's a tale of two mayors, Frank Rizzo (all law-and-order intimidation) and Wilson Goode (the one in office in May 1985). It's a story of a revolutionary movement that endangered the health and lives of its followers. It's a chronicle of bull-headed law enforcement guided by tactical decision-making utterly devoid of defensible sense. "Let the Fire Burn" does it all without any of the usual trappings of the genre: voice-over narration, dramatic re-creations, talking-heads interviews.
Osder and editor Nels Bangerter work together to create a flow of images and words building to a climax of sober inevitability. No melodrama; no overt screw-tightening. The film doesn't reveal the identity of a pair of key police informants until just the right moment. The inclusion of Rizzo's 1976 mayoral campaign ad, stoking all sorts of free-floating racial dread in its images of "a tortured city," sets the tone in an honest, forthright way.
The story, against the odds, offers up a hero or two within its litany of woefully flawed and blinkered ideologues on every side of the tragedy.
See this one.
"Let the Fire Burn"-- 4 stars
No MPAA rating (some language and horrific images)
Running time: 1:35
Plays: Friday-Oct. 31 at the Siskel Film Center
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