First time director Jason Osder has created a film that is an accurate capsule of one extraordinary human rights violation approved and carried out by the political hierarchy of Philadelphia in 1983.
MOVE was a radical “green” group whose environmental anti-technology message was deemed dangerous and anti-establishment. Wearing dreadlocks, the primarily vegan members followed the vague religious philosophy of their founder John Africa. Living communally and aggressively demonstrating against the ills they saw in society, they alienated almost everyone they came into contact with. Aggressively anti-police, the police returned the sentiment and in 1978 raided the MOVE compound. During that raid, shots were fired and a policeman was killed. Nine members of MOVE were prosecuted and convicted of that killing. A MOVE adherent arrested during the raid was beaten, punched and kicked by the police while cuffed and restrained, all captured on video. Prosecuted, those police officers were found not guilty.
Beaten but unbowed, Africa and his followers relocated to a different part of Philadelphia where they again disturbed the peace and alienated their mostly black neighbors who looked to the police for relief. The police department was more than happy to comply and began their eviction plan. Remembering, even relishing, the conflict that they knew would follow, they asked all the neighbors to move out for 24 hours as they carried out their plan. The strategy was simple as the police arrived on the scene with fully automated weapons and a will to extract the MOVE members at any cost, regardless of the consequences. Using water guns and tear gas, the barrage began and went on for hours to little effect. Unconcerned that there were women and young children in the building, the police commissioner, with the black mayor’s agreement, had an incendiary device dropped from a helicopter onto the bunker that MOVE had built atop their row house. Immediately after the bomb was dropped, smoke began to pour out of the top of the building; then the flames appeared. It was the next decision that surely makes it one of the worst human rights violations carried out against its own people. The order came to let the fire burn. Burn it did and soon the building and the rest of the neighborhood were engulfed in flames. A neighborhood of 60 homes was destroyed and eleven people killed in the fire, five of whom were children.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of this film is the lack of polemics as it is told entirely from archival footage – contemporaneous local news broadcasts, filmed interviews with MOVE members prior to the incident (documenting the abrasive, unsympathetic single-minded rhetoric of the group), the testimony of the police, mayor, fire commissioner and district attorney at the investigative commission convened by the mayor after the slaughter, and, most poignantly, the deposition given by Michael Africa, aged 10, recounting the terrors both inside and outside the bunker from a child’s perspective.
Truly, watching the testimony of the participants in this catastrophe is disheartening and depressing. Yet it still serves as a useful reminder of what man is capable of doing to man, especially when race and religious beliefs, for Africa’s followers considered their devotion to be religious, collide with the mainstream.
“Let the Fire Burn” can certainly be filed under the category of truth is stranger than fiction because who, in this modern age, could conceive of such inhumane behavior in the United States. In Abu Ghraib perhaps, but not here?
Opening Friday October 18 at the Nuart.