Filmmaker Jason Osder discusses his documentary Let the Fire Burn, an investigation into the 1985 bombing of the MOVE collective in Philadelphia.
Over a decade of conflict and antagonism between the Philadelphia police force and a group of African American revolutionaries known as MOVE, culminated with an epic tragedy on May 13, 1985. MOVE members had taken over a multi-story row house in a lower-middle class, mostly Black, West Philadelphia neighborhood where several members—men, women and children—were living off the grid together as an extended family.
On that day, after an hours-long extensive gunfight and stand off—and after evacuating the neighborhood—police commissioner Greg Sambor authorized a bomb to be dropped from a helicopter on the MOVE compound. The row house caught fire, and following a directive from Mayor Wilson Goode to “let the fire burn,” all the residents trapped inside the house—except for one little boy and one woman—were killed. Almost the entire residential neighborhood was destroyed. Until now, this incident has been a mostly forgotten moment in recent American history. Filmmaker Jason Osder, a Philadelphia native who was 11 at the time of the tragedy, set out to find out what happened that day—and, more importantly, why.
Osder is currently a full-time assistant professor at the Documentary Center at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs in Washington, DC. Let the Fire Burn is his début feature and is constructed entirely of archival materials: the televised community public hearing that followed the conflagration; 13-year-old Michael Ward’s filmed deposition and testimony (the boy was then known as Birdie Africa); segments of the local TV news coverage; and, a very odd and stilted black and white documentary done on the MOVE group and its activities. It is an exceedingly powerful and emotional journey into a very, very dark moment in contemporary America.
The film was part of the International DOX competition at this year’s edition of DokuFest in Prizren, Kosovo in August. Never having been to this part of the world before, Osder joined us early, excited to be taking the film to such unexpected places. Before the festival began in earnest, we had a chance to sit at a local café and chat about the long road to make this film.
Pamela Cohn As a director, you’ve crafted character arcs to reveal more and more about, not only what happened to these people, but who they are by positioning them in this drama as foils, protagonists and villains, and how they each contribute to the larger story.
To start with, there’s 13-year-old Michael Ward, stating his side of the story in front of a camera in an informal deposition. While you may have sat with some of these people thirty years after the incident you’re documenting, you ultimately chose to encounter all of your subjects on pieces of celluloid or video from the archives. When in the process did you actually meet with your subjects in person?
Jason Osder I consider this production to have had two periods. The first was before I was at the university when I was an independent filmmaker struggling with this incredibly challenging project. Actually, I wouldn’t say struggling; I would say failing. And then there was the period when I had the support and infrastructure of the university, an institution that provided the seed money for me to really begin. So in the first phase, I interviewed Ramona Africa for the first time. I interviewed former policeman James Berghaier, one of the key television journalists, and a couple of other people. I went back and re-interviewed Ramona again in the late 2000s. I certainly never got to talk to everyone. I never sat with Wilson Goode, the mayor of Philadelphia at the time of the MOVE tragedy. He’s a person I wanted to interview very much. I read his autobiography but I always felt that his psychology remained a mystery to me.
A good way to contextualize it for a documentary audience is that in that first stage of the film, I thought often of the film One Day in September. I didn’t want to interview absolutely everyone I could, but to interview the key people whose lives had changed due to the incident, to have these important perspectives. I would say it was informed by knowing those people, Officer Berghaier being the best instance. He was less a character in the film than I expected him to be, but his presence proves to have a lot of weight, and that’s the result of being informed about where and who he is now.
You used the word protagonist, and the way in which that acts as a narrative tag. Any time anything structural comes up with this film, I have to credit the editor, Nels Bangerter. He played a vital role in this project. We had a very strong director-editor relationship, a classic one, if you will. One of the first things I said to him was that I knew how to edit and I also knew that I wasn’t the editor of this film. That was his job. Whatever cuts of mine were there were notes for him. He would evaluate them and decide what happened next.
PC How many hours of material did you ultimately choose to work with?
JO Between 80-100 hours. The hearings, of course, were the biggest portion of that. It took some time but we did the bulk of the research by accessing almost all of the hearing footage, the thousands of pages of legal transcripts, as well as the transcribed news reports. These were extremely detailed and containted descriptions of the shots, the way the camera moved in the footage, pans, all of that.
I’m not of the mind that you need to go to film school to make a film. But the fact that both Nels and I are film school kids informed this process.
PC How, specifically?
JO Well, in speaking of this relationship between us, it was about a mutual understanding of a sensibility, a responsibility to the material and the process. It’s not about what your skill set is, but understanding your role in a project.
The other thing is that, for the most part, he and I worked remotely since he lives in northern California. We worked from a tremendous amount of written notes. It would take me hours to go through the cut. But our call, once he had received and digested all the pages of my written notes, might last less than an hour. He would only question the few things that weren’t clear to him. The ability to articulate your thoughts about your film in writing was extremely valuable.
PC The reason why I used terms like “protagonist” and “foil,” is that there is this distinct proscenium in the footage of the hearing that makes it very much feel like a theater piece of sorts. There is performance; there is an audience that is participating by witnessing, but also an audience that has a vested interest in the proceedings. And it was done with extremely high production value and attention to detail to create a very profound emotional experience—it’s there in the lighting, the camera moves, the cutting. It creates this feeling of a play-within-a-play. It’s a structure that really works beautifully to offset the other materials you decided to use.
JO There are two interesting things to what you’re saying. One is that much of that specific language you’re using was used in the edit room as well, in terms of theatrical language, but also in terms of act structure.
The other thing I want to say is that in watching the hearings throughout, it was very easy to sense that the public television camera people understood the privilege and opportunity to shoot these moments. This is not normally the kind of shooting you see on public access television and you sense that these people knew they had to bring their “A-game” to this work because this was history, this mattered. Nels never knew their names but he got to know the camera people by how they shot. One guy was really rack-focus happy; one guy was close-up happy, one guy pan happy. (laughter)
PC The coverage is rather remarkable. There were moments when I was convinced that I was watching a re-creation of some sort.
JO It’s amazing. We didn’t have any of the isolated camera angles, we just had the switched live tape. There was someone directing the hearings. You feel that person’s presence as well. An interesting side story to all this is that, years later when I’m at the university, my department chair calls me on the weekend and tells me that he’s there with the GW Public Affairs National Council, our financial booster. One of the members of the Council is John Barth, the managing director of PRX. He was at WHYY [the public radio station in Philadelphia] at the time of the MOVE tragedy. John Barth and I meet and get together for dinner and he proceeds to tell me that not only was he there, but he was the person in the meeting that insisted on going live at the hearing. He felt it was the responsibility of the public television station to do this, a responsibility to the city to broadcast it. He was the one that argued to put this on live TV. This was at the TV station’s own cost, money they never recouped. I’m still so impressed by his prescience about the importance of it. There’s a real theme here of the importance of public media to inform its audience. There were many very keen and sensitive decisions being made.
PC Will you talk a little bit then about the necessity of building this project completely out of archival material even though you did have access to many of the key players?
JO Well, again, I must give credit to Nels on this. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but it’s not something I would have, or could have, done without him. I can say that we conceptualized the idea of doing this archival build from the very beginning as an artistic “risk-reward” proposition. In other words, if it works, it’s going to be very special in a way in which the people who like it are really going to like it. In fact, it would be a film that people could love. And if it doesn’t work, it’s not just going to be mediocre, it’s probably going to fall on its face, possibly not even be a film. Once we talked about it enough, we decided to leap, to see if we could get away with it.
Nels saw the dramatic potential of the hearing and he saw the flaws in the current-day interviews. And those flaws were substantial. With each subject, in his or her way, I had trouble getting below the surface. Ramona Africa is a professional activist and spokeswoman; she doesn’t give much up in any personal or emotional way. And if you’re from Philadelphia, getting an interview with Michael Ward as an adult is a huge exclusive. Many people are very curious about what happened to him. But at 33, he was exactly as he was at 13. If you watch the interview, it speaks to continuing trauma from childhood into adulthood. The bottom line is that it wasn’t very filmic or cinematic at all and he’s not a hugely compelling presence on camera.
What we desired, more than anything, was to create a constant off-balance feeling on the part of the viewer in terms of what this film might be about or represent. As soon as you might think it’s simply about race in America and start to feel comfortable with that, we wanted to ask other questions about the role of the media, the agenda of the politicians and city officials, etc. By removing those things that made people comfortable—which, in essence, would be talking heads, for instance—and reframing the archival to ensure a deeper engagement as more details about what happened that day are revealed, one is forced to reckon with differing perspectives. Every single thing comes from a point of view and so there can be a dialogue between the individual viewer and the film.
PC The portrayal of the local media and the individual reporters on the scene collectively represented another protagonist in this drama. This was a juicy story, possibly the juiciest most had encountered and you can see it in their eyes, hear it in their voices. They were scared and thrilled all at the same time, some probably realizing that this story was possibly the career booster of all career boosters.
JO But we also, as filmmakers, have to evaluate ourselves in this way.
PC This is why I bring this up, because their role is a very interesting one. As with your other protagonists, I’m interested to know about how your personal emotional connection developed as you selected which of that footage to put in the cut.
JO I’ll start by saying that there is a part of me that feels that the Philadelphia media shared some culpability in how things went down. Not to the extent that some others are more obviously culpable. What I will say is that if you were an adult in that city, and particularly if you had some authority, you blew it. The only people that were not at fault were the children in that house. But even before we get to that level of media critique, even from a cinematic point of view, there’s something that happens when this context of television broadcasting breaks. We have something that is recognizable as a newscast and then it becomes something different, almost vérité pieces of drama in the midst of all the chaos on that street at the time.
You see them ducking. We’ve never seen someone broadcasting the local news while trying to avoid bullets. It’s fascinating to watch. But as they’re ducking, there’s one piece of footage where there are two reporters actually wrestling over the microphone. Some scenes are downright comical and even have gotten some laughs. At certain points, their levels of exaggeration as they report “live from the scene” are not only ridiculous, they’re wildly inaccurate—for instance, one reporter describes the flames of the fire as being ten stories high! Another is blathering on about seeing 60-caliber machine guns. There’s no such thing as a 60-caliber machine gun. But the bottom line is that, yes, this made careers.
Another interesting angle on the media’s culpability comes from a brilliant book called Discourse and Destruction: The City of Philadelphia and MOVE by Robin Wagner-Pacifici. She did textual analysis of the newspaper reporting, among other sociological studies, and one of the things she showed which we subtly refer to in the film is how the newspapers struggled to classify the group. Are they a cult? Are they a back-to-nature group? Are they revolutionaries? What are they? What descriptive word was the Philadelphia press using to describe them? As the confrontation approached, they did converge on a single word for the group—and that word was terrorists. By the time the conflict happens, both major newspapers are using that word. There are reports that the group has a series of tunnels under the city, that they have a nuclear bomb.
When you make a nonfiction film, sometimes you get resistance from unexpected places. One of those places we experienced resistance was from the Philadelphia press. Most just did not want to talk to me and did not want to be involved. This was surprising. I expected it from others, but not from the press. Some even discouraged me from making the film. A friend had a cousin who was retiring from one of the news stations and we thought he might be our rabbi, in some way, to the Philadelphia press, our interlocutor. He turned us down. In wanting to know why, he said that he, like a lot of people in the press, wound up experiencing really bad fallout from the story. There was no way the press could cover the story without giving MOVE exactly what they seemed to want, which was attention and being built up as seeming more powerful and threatening than they really were. He felt the press ended up participating in this lionization of the group. Do you think MOVE minded that it was being reported that they had masterminded a series of underground tunnels throughout the city? They loved it. The press, to its chagrin, ended up playing right into the group’s hands in this way.
A big light went off for me as to why this devastating story has been, thus far, unknown and has not really been part of any historical canon until now. It made me think about how current events become history, or fail to become history. And in this instance, I don’t want to say the press was complicit in burying it in any way, but it did seem to be over their heads. The MOVE members were trained as masterful propagandists and provocateurs. The most extreme supposition of what happened is that MOVE planned to be martyred that day, that that was their intention. This is the most extreme expression of what I’m talking about, that they were pulling the strings to the extent that they had picked people to sacrifice and, presumably, would have picked Ramona to walk out of that blaze to be the group’s spokesperson.
PC That’s really chilling to think about.
JO On the other hand, there is something that is explicitly in the film, and that’s when Ramona is asked to confirm a report that there are explosives inside the house. There is a smirk from her, and then she says, “Well, you wouldn’t know that would you, since you haven’t been inside the house.” She doesn’t confirm; she doesn’t deny. She just lets it take its course. She understands, better than the reporters and their executive producers, what’s going on there. I don’t know if they meant to die like that; nobody does. But what we do know is that they were expert counterpunchers in provoking the force of the system. And in the system’s reaction to that provocation, it would reveal its true nature. Now would they take that to the point of martyrdom? I wouldn’t put that on them. But that is the most extreme expression of that thinking, suicide or homicide at the cops’ hands. Structurally, the whole problem with television news in general, then and now in different ways, is its own culture.
PC The stance of most news reporting, then and now, we could say, is that of hysteria—channeling it and building it to a fever pitch. The news media has been scaring the hell out of the public for decades.
JO Presumably, a reporter wants to dig deeper. Maybe they become filmmakers so they can do that. (laughter) But in fact, to not do the job in three minutes is to do harm. To pretend to present something in-depth is a bit of a danger. The intrinsic message in all news is: sit still, grab something to eat, stay on the couch. That’s the message of television news. It’s by design.
So to circle back, reporters wound up feeling used. The footage exposes some of the problems in media cultural structure, and the obvious fact that the MOVE group was extremely good at manipulating the press. When you spend time with the principals of the organization, it’s inescapable how smart and savvy they are about media and provocation.
PC There are breakdowns and breakthroughs as the film moves into its “conclusions” of what we’ve been shown about what happened that day from various perspectives—but, ultimately, not that many. But the cathartic scenes that are there are significant and powerful. The outright fury of Louise James and LaVerne Sims at the hearings becomes palpable and more and more emotional as they sit there for days processing all of these testimonies about how their families died. Much is revealed in juxtaposition to Michael Ward’s testimony—a child’s testimony. Most of these city officials, including the cops that were there that day, are clearly lying.
JO My interpretation, actually, is that what’s so shocking is not that they lie, but that they tell the truth. And that truth is that they did not see these people as human beings at all.
I think a breakdown or breakthrough is right, though. It’s not particularly clear in the film and if I could have made this clearer, I would have. But they ask Louise and LaVerne if they are in MOVE or out of MOVE. Are they MOVE members or former MOVE members? Their response states that that’s not a relevant question to ask at all in light of the fact that their families were killed. They were already drifting away out of fear of what was going on inside that house, the beatings and the internal violence that was taking place inside the group. But the family was bombed. And in that circumstance they got pushed back together as a united group, whatever divisiveness was happening inside. Unlike Ramona who remains emotionless at all times in public, these two women struggle greatly with this divide. Their enemy’s enemy is most certainly not their friend.
Nels recognized that material for its drama since I don’t really remember how I felt about that segment until I started working with him and we put those scenes together. Until I started working with him, those hearings felt like just information to me. I didn’t see it as drama. He helped me see the potential of that material. In terms of having a taut, tense film, it offers a wonderful opportunity to deliver information with much more profound affect. Everyone is being cross-examined all the time with very penetrating questions. It’s built into the material of the hearings. You get both exposition and context without having to ease up on the pressure that’s built dramatically.
PC But how those pieces are cut together is what is really building something. The slight cathartic build is there, both in the material and in its presentation or contextual impressions.
JO There’s not really a major catharsis in the film, even though we experimented with building a more significant one. But we decided, in fact, not to pull away too much from the quiet tension that builds instead of some explosive release.
PC What’s the most important thing you learned during the whole process of crafting this film, an insight into your own creation? What did you learn personally about your own film when you watched the final cut with an audience?
JO First, I’ll speak to something that has more to do with the making of the film rather than watching the finished one. It was about exploring in a narrative way the response to the question, How could this happen? Ultimately, seeing it as some kind of morality play has to do with prejudice and intolerance in a broad way. We see what is possible when we stop looking at fellow human beings as a brother or sister and, instead, see them as a category. The category here is Black. But then you start to realize that’s still oversimplifying. Trying throughout this filmmaking process to find out how this could happen—well, it’s still not as clear as I thought it could be. But in telling this story with integrity, we can get closer. For me, it brought a certain calm since I’ve been wondering about this since I was an 11-year-old in Philadelphia discovering that the world was not as safe and secure as my parents had led me to believe. What should you do after seeing this film? You should look around at the larger world and see what else is fucked up, as fucked up as children being sacrificed for the beliefs of the adults who are supposed to be taking care of them. If there’s a message at all here, that would be it. It’s not really a positive message.
In terms of audience engagement, I had an expectation that this film would be provocative, more in the sense of getting people to ask hard questions than anything else. I expected a certain aggressiveness to those questions. I might still get that in Philadelphia when we show it there. There might be anger at what they encounter in the film. So far, it turns out that the content of the questions being asked from viewers is what I expected. But the tone is, in fact, the opposite of aggressive. It’s thoughtful, contemplative, coming from a place where people have been moved emotionally. I was surprised by the willingness of people to engage in exchanges and conversations about this instead of something more belligerent. I so much wanted to do as balanced a piece as I could, to really explore different sides of the story. One-sided films, or screeds, are the things, I think, that get people fighting. Even if I am basically sympathetic to the message of a film, I often feel a need to create some kind of counterpoint. I don’t like those types of films, even when I agree with their narrow point of view. There’s no challenge there to think and ask questions.
This was a true story presented in all of its aspects. So what does it mean? To my mind, you’re not a better person for sitting through the movie. You’re a better person if it changes your behavior after watching it.
Michael Ward, the sole surviving child of the MOVE bombing, passed away on September 20, 2013.
Pamela Cohn is a filmmaker, curator and freelance arts journalist currently based in Germany and Kosovo.