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Review: Let the Fire Burn (2013)

Let the Fire Burn (2013)

Directed by: Jason Osder

Premise: A documentary about the 1985 standoff between Philadelphia police and MOVE, an organization that attempted to build an agrarian commune in the middle of an urban community.

What Works: Let the Fire Burn is an astonishing and disturbing piece of work that examines an important but largely unacknowledged event of recent history. As depicted in the film, MOVE was a rebellious green organization that recalled the hippie communes that had been popular at the height of the countercultural movement of the late 1960s and early 70s. The members of MOVE rejected technology and repurposed urban spaces, attempting to build an agricultural subculture in the middle of the city of Philadelphia. The group refused to obey local laws regarding waste disposal and building codes and they were regarded by mainstream society as a nuisance at best and as terrorists at worst. Let the Fire Burn provides an appropriate amount of context, covering the 1978 shootout between police and MOVE members, but it is primarily concerned with the 1985 standoff between the organization and law enforcement authorities. That standoff ended when Philadelphia police detonated an explosive on the roof of the MOVE compound which precipitated a fire that was allowed to burn and subsequently destroyed a great deal of the local neighborhood and killed eleven people, five of them children. The filmmakers of Let the Fire Burn have assembled a wealth of archival footage and created a narrative that picks apart the timeline of events and the decisions made by the key people involved, especially on the part of the city of Philadelphia. In the aftermath of the fire, a commission was assembled to investigate what happened and the filmmakers smartly use this as a form of narration, crosscutting the footage of the commission’s hearings and testimonies with the news reports of the siege in progress. What emerges is a complex portrait of an indignant, impossible, and self-righteous group (MOVE) coming into conflict with the power structure of the establishment (Philadelphia’s police department). The ensuing calamity that not only removed an undesirable element but ultimately laid waste to an entire neighborhood is a frightening depiction of latent racism and systemic failure that remains relevant for contemporary viewers.

What Doesn’t: Let the Fire Burn leaves the viewer with some fundamental questions unanswered. The examination of the ideology of MOVE is pretty shallow and there are hints about other problems with the organization, such as the treatment of their children, but those concerns are left ambiguous or unaddressed. This blind spot in the filmmaking is partly a result of the filmmakers’ stylistic choices. Let the Fire Burn is almost entirely made up of footage from news reports and documentaries from the 1970s and 80s as well as the testimonies made before the investigating commission. The filmmakers do not catch up with the surviving figures for present day interviews. That gives Let the Fire Burn an immediacy that works for the dramatic aspects of the picture and makes this a historical document untainted by hindsight. However, this also means that Let the Fire Burn is unable to explore what the MOVE standoff means in the greater context of history. The way in which Let the Fire Burn is assembled feigns objectivity and the filmmakers are fair in their treatment of everyone involved. However, it is pretty clear that the filmmakers’ sympathies are with the MOVE members. Given what happened to these people sympathy is an entirely appropriate reaction but this picture might not be quite as even handed as the filmmakers seem to think it is.

DVD extras: Interviews.

Bottom Line: Let the Fire Burn is a riveting story that successfully places the viewer back in the moment of the MOVE standoff. This is also an important documentary and viewers should take time to watch this picture and consider its implications and its bearing on contemporary society.

Episode: #489 (May 4, 2014)