Almost 15 years after “The Blair Witch Project,” here’s another scary found-footage movie. The difference is that while “Witch Project” fooled many people into thinking it was a true story, “Let the Fire Burn” most definitely is.
Focusing on the 1985 standoff between Philadelphia police and the black liberation group MOVE, Jason Osder’s documentary relies entirely on video shot at the time and shortly afterward: local TV news segments and, later, painful depositions and an official legal investigation of the police-deployed firebomb that burned 11 MOVE members, five of them children, to death. Only one woman survived, and a boy: Michael Moses Ward’s halting testimony about that fatal day is the movie’s most riveting threadline.
Director Osder’s decision to forgo a traditional narrative and narrator, or even extensive onscreen legends that fill in the historical background, has some powerful payoffs. In the last 30 minutes or so, anyway. This approach poses problems in the film’s front half.
Younger viewers will probably be asking, What the hell was MOVE, exactly? The documentary lets its central antagonists — the group’s members and the Philly police — define those terms in their own words at the time. Nobody comes off looking good.
MOVE, as an organization or philosophy, never comes into focus. It seems to be a group of people who aimed, even celebrated, disruption and threats toward anyone who fell into their path. Which probably is how its members would have defined their chief opponents, the Philadelphia police force.
Founded by the dreadlocked John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart), whose faux surname all his acolytes took, MOVE comprised individuals whose main form of public expression was to rant about the corruption of “the system” and “the establishment” without breaking their complaints into specific components that could have been used in discussion or negotiations with the politicians and policemen they vilified. They lived commune-style in a townhouse, feeding the many children among them only raw food, claiming they thrived on the diet (though we see one of the children with a distended belly typical of famine victims). And they terrorized their neighbors, broadcasting furious, rabble-rousing profanity from loudspeakers attached to the house and building a wooden bunker on the roof that looked like a sniper’s nest.
Philly’s police force doesn’t come off much better. In the wake of an earlier standoff in the 1970s, we see cops kicking a MOVE member in the torso and head as he lies defenseless on a sidewalk. That some of the officers involved in that incident also were players in the 1985 firebombing becomes a crucial, agonizing factor in the documentary’s last act.
So here’s the thing, and I have to get personal here. I hate this stuff. Oh, the documentary is well made, a rigorous use of archival materials. But I have the same gut reaction when I watch movies, narrative or documentary, about willfully opaque opposing forces who refuse to speak rationally to each other, whether it’s Israelis vs. Palestinians or, these days, many of our fine representatives in Congress. As a human being, I just can’t tolerate the clash of rhetoric against reason, of forceful deployment against constructive discussion.
Which is a way of saying that “Let the Fire Burn” is probably a very successful piece of work, if it intends to get under your skin and make you a little bit crazy. Take that as recommendation or warning.
A footnote: This sad 1985 story is made even sadder by a development too recent for the film to include. Young Michael Moses Ward, a.k.a. Birdie Africa, died in September, accidentally drowning at age 41 on a cruise ship.
“Let the Fire Burn.” A documentary by Jason Osder. Unrated. 95 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.