In 1985, Philadelphia police dropped explosives on a house filled with members of the extremist African-American MOVE organization after years of conflict between the two groups. A resulting fire, which destroyed 61 homes and killed 11 people, five of them children, was allowed to burn for more than an hour despite firefighters standing by.
Media and Public Affairs professor, and Philadelphia native, Jason Osder researched this catastrophe for nearly a decade for his new documentary, Let the Fire Burn. The film is coming to theaters this fall after winning praise at some of the most prestigious festivals in the country. At the Tribeca Film Festival, in April, the film earned two awards—“Best Editing in a Documentary Feature” and a special jury mention in the “Best New Documentary Director” category—and at AFI Docs, in June, it was selected as one of the “Best of the Fest.”
Professor Osder talked with GW Magazine’s Caitlin Carroll about the film.
Why did you decide to make the film using only archival materials—no interviews or narration?
I never wanted to interview everyone who had anything to say about this. I wanted to find a handful of people who were really participants. I was doing fairly well with that up until I brought the editor on, and when we looked at all the materials we realized that the interviews had certain liabilities and the archival materials had certain strengths. We saw a creative opportunity and we thought the result would really keep you in the moment—the past in present tense.
If it worked, it would be something special. And if it didn’t work it would sort of fall on its face. It wouldn’t really be a film.
What does your research and storytelling illuminate about the incident?
In a lot of work like this there is a belief that excavating the material is worthwhile in and of itself. If there is this literal or figurative dark corner that hasn’t been explored, we ought to shine a light in there and figure out what knowledge lurks there.
I think it is sort of cursory to say that we were solving a mystery of who is responsible for this. That’s not primarily the type of mystery I was trying to solve. I think it’s more of a moral mystery. You say five children and six adults die in a fire set by police that they chose not to fight—it’s unthinkable. How could that have taken place? I think the incident provokes that question in stark relief: How does the unthinkable come to happen?
What I hope to reveal through the film is that once people are dehumanized, once we as individuals look at another individual and see something besides a fellow human being—any label, really—that’s how the unthinkable comes to pass. It is in part a racial story, but I think the label was “MOVE,” a very unique and localized label. I think what’s ultimately revealed is that whatever the label is—black or MOVE or gay or straight or Muslim or whatever—if you see that ahead of a person as sort of a shield in front of a person, that’s the first step to the unthinkable coming to be.
That’s how you get to “let’s kill the kids too” or “let’s let them burn.”
I wanted the film to feel like a child sitting too close to the television.
I think it’s a very, very complex story and I think that is an impediment to becoming part of the public knowledge. Overlay with that the racial nature of the incident and I think for a long time, especially on the television, the combination of complexity and race had not been covered well.
You were growing up in Philadelphia when this event took place. How did your reactions to seeing the archival materials during your research compare to how you remember the event?
It’s really tricky because of the way memory works. Now that I’ve finished making the film it’s very hard for me to remember when I first saw something. Essentially what you are asking me is the difference between seeing the smoke in the sky live, seeing it that evening at home at 11 years old on my television, seeing it sometime between then and 20 years later when I started the film, or 30 years later when I finished the film. In terms of emotional content—what was it like for me to watch compared to what we tried to do in the film—that’s all a big mishmash to me. I wanted the film to feel like a child sitting too close to the television. I’ve worked with the thoughts and feelings in a creative way too deeply to give you an honest answer of what it was emotionally like.
How did you get over some of the barriers you faced with accessing archival footage?
The thing with accessing the footage really is at the heart of the difference between making a film completely independently and partnering with an institution. I had been working on the film before I joined the faculty, but I was really pretty stuck. When I joined the faculty I got access to a number of things—some more tangible than others. We have this strong office of general counsel and they went to work for me. One way to look at how they helped me crack the access issue is the combination of the letterhead and the lawyers.
Have any reactions to the film surprised you?
I always thought that I was making a provocative film that people would want to discuss, but I felt that there would be a certain amount—and this may still happen in Philadelphia—of heat in those discussions. I felt like people would want to argue about the film—about who was right and who was wrong. And they do want to talk, but the tone is not combative. That has been the big surprise for me.
You’re beginning work on a new project with fellow School of Media and Public Affairs professor William Youmans. What can you tell us about that?
We’re at very early stages of researching. It starts with an assassination in 1985 in southern California of an Arab-American leader. There are allegations that this was at the hands of a Zionist organization. And in a lot of ways this is sort of a mythic story in the Arab-American community. And so the idea is to explore this assassination-slash-murder-mystery, but also explore more deeply the phenomena of what it means if one community in America has a whole mythic story that they tell and the rest of us are unaware of it.
—By Caitlin Carroll
Editor’s Note: An abbreviated version of this interview appears in the Summer 2013 issue of GW Magazine.