Let the Fire Burn Review
My interest in the volatile situation with MOVE and, by extension, Let the Fire Burn began when I read a case study in college on the May 1985 catastrophe in West Philadelphia between the local organization and the police department. It was difficult to believe that such a thing could happen, even in one of the more racially segregated and largest cities in the United States.
An entire city block was destroyed by fire, with 11 casualties and 61 homes ruined, as a result of the Philadelphia police department's actions. Whether such acts were necessary remains controversial and, as evidenced by my experience in college, an example from which future government and public administration leaders could learn. It was the ultimate climax in an ongoing dispute between the city of Philadelphia and the radical urban group MOVE. Tension had been bubbling for years after a police officer was killed during a raid on a previous MOVE house. Meanwhile, neighbors of both the former location and the one which would be burned on that May afternoon in 1985 had shared numerous complaints with the city over MOVE's tactics. These ranged from poor sanitation to stockpiling weapons to even using bullhorns in the middle of the night. The presence of several children in the MOVE house was also a concern.
The documentary Let the Fire Burn takes what is a rather underused approach in that it sticks exclusively with archival footage of the events. So no talking heads or recreated action exists in the film. The primary sources include hearings and related interviews. Public policy programs and news footage also help to give a sense of how these events were perceived at the time. It makes for an engrossing look at a story that still feels relevant. The point, so far as one can tell, isn't to slant things or provide opinions, much less answers. If anything, Let the Fire Burn leaves the viewer with questions which essentially cannot be answered since the full extent of hows and whys regarding the day of the fire remain elusive. It instead provokes and informs, just about as objectively as a documentary film can.
To be sure, the urge to incite remains in the movie. First-time director Jason Osder does not seem to be coming from a completely dispassionate place, and it's understandable that someone interested enough to tell this story would want to do so with at least some perspective. Osder greatly utilizes an interview with child survivor Michael Moses Ward, known as "Birdie Africa" and one of just two survivors from the MOVE house. Some of what Ward says seems to contradict part of the testimony from officials and police officers, and Osder consequently plays this up in a way which perhaps gives more credence to the child. Regardless, the back and forth easily helps the film as it furthers an inherent conflict while also stirring up audience emotion.
By patiently letting the events play out little by little, Let the Fire Burn becomes a documentary that's also a great, suspenseful drama. And it's filled with information rather than just opinions or time-plagued memories. The film becomes both a lesson in poor decision-making at the local level and a cautionary tale for conflict resolution. It essentially takes all of the tragedy and tension from the dealings between MOVE and the city of Philadelphia and transfers it into a nonfiction film. Let the Fire Burn seems almost certain to be the definitive documentary portrait of this horrible ordeal, and it serves as a vital, important piece on a major incident that isn't as widely known as it perhaps should be.
Let the Fire Burn was easily one of the best documentaries of 2013 and it comes to region-free DVD in the U.S. via Zeitgeist Films.
The dual-layered disc includes the film in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio transfer. It's been enhanced for widescreen televisions. The footage that comprises the film would most likely have originally been 1.33:1 but it's nonetheless being presented in 16:9. Since the movie does consist entirely of archival footage the quality is not of the standard we'd expect from something that was more recently shot. Still, there doesn't seem to be any significant problems in the transfer itself. The video shows symptoms of its origins but those are unavoidable.
Similarly, the English language audio is derived from older sources but still manages to come through cleanly and minus any struggle to hear or understand it. Zeitgeist has provided both Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and stereo tracks. The former is quite enveloping considering the source limitations, and both more than meet expectations. There are optional subtitles in English for the hearing impaired.
A few nice supplements include a 2002 interview with Michael Moses Ward, aka Birdie Africa, that ultimately wasn't used in the final film because director Jason Osder decided to go with only archival footage. As a side note, Ward sadly passed away late last year, unexpectedly, while on a cruise. He was only 41.
A lengthy Q&A with Osder is also included. It runs about 41 minutes and touches on a number of subjects. The theatrical trailer for the film finishes off the disc's extras.
Inside the case is a short booklet which has a message from the director and a time line of the events involving MOVE and the city of Philadelphia.