Jason Osder’s electrifying Let the Fire Burn examines the events surrounding May 13, 1985, when Philadelphia leaders decided in their wisdom to drop a bomb on the headquarters of the radical “anarcho-primitivist” group MOVE, a conflagration that killed eleven people (including five children). It also wiped out three blocks. Osder doesn’t use present-day talking heads. He went to the archives. His spine is footage of a commission in which the principals were questioned, politely but penetratingly. The movie can be seen as a brilliantly condensed and illustrated version of those hearings. And by sticking with historical footage—much of it news reports from the scene—Osder has made a documentary that’s astonishingly in the present tense.
Ten thousand rounds were fired on a group with four weapons, none automatic. But this is not a whitewash, so to speak, of MOVE. Its mission was incoherent and its leader—who called himself John Africa—unbalanced. He was in the business of provocation. Perhaps he even knew the police would be gunning for revenge for the death of an officer during a 1978 raid. Osder gets the balance right. He lingers on Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor, who seems at once humiliated and smug and appears to have let the fire burn even when the order to put it out finally came down from Mayor Wilson Goode. (Goode claimed he thought he saw water being sprayed on TV, but it turned out to be bad reception!) There was no camera in the alley where a group of MOVE members (including children) attempted to surrender but for some reason went back into the fire. You don’t see what happened. But you know.
Let the Fire Burn is a time machine. It shows there are truths out there waiting to be found—that footage already shot can make history in all its terrible finality breathe.