Jason Osder was 11 years old and living in Montgomery County when the Pennsylvania State Police dropped two explosives onto the house at 6221 Osage Ave., ending a standoff with members of the radical political group MOVE and starting a fire that killed 11 of its members, including five children, and eventually consumed 61 houses on the street. As he walked to school, he could see the smoke from the blaze rising above the city, a moment neither he nor anyone else who lived near Philadelphia on May 13, 1985, is likely to forget.
Nearly 30 years later, Osder, now teaching media at George Washington University, has channeled that experience into a documentary called Let the Fire Burn that he’s spent most of the last decade assembling. “I think that’s what art’s about,” Osder said last week from Los Angeles, “taking the things that stick with you and trying to make something out of it. I don’t know what the answer is, but I tried to make a story of it.”
Osder started off conventionally, shooting new interviews with the only two survivors from the MOVE house: Ramona Africa and Michael Ward, then a 13-year-old known as Birdie Africa. (Ward died a few weeks ago while on a vacation cruise with his family.) But when editor Nels Bangerter joined the film, he advised Osder to drop the footage he’d shot and use only clips from the period, including news footage of the siege and televised hearings of a special investigative commission.
“The interviews we’d shot were not particularly strong from a documentary perspective,” Osder says. “What you want to do with a documentary interview is not just provide information, but peel back the surface, get to the emotional reality. And those emotional realities were not particularly accessible.” Africa, who has remained an outspoken political activist, was too practiced a speaker to reveal anything new, and Ward, Osder says, was still traumatized to the point where he could barely speak on the topic. “Maybe someone else could have gotten Ramona Africa to talk about what happened in that back alley,” he says, “but she’s not that kind of interview.”
In a way, Let the Fire Burn’s lack of present-day perspective is a perfect match for the MOVE bombing itself, which is still an open wound, or, as Osder puts it, “a scar that didn’t heal well. It still itches. It still irritates. I went down to the block recently and you would almost think you’re looking at the burned-down buildings that were boarded up. You’d have to be told that those houses were completely destroyed, and you’re looking at the rebuilt houses that were then abandoned.”
In addition to exploring a dark day in Philadelphia’s history, Let the Fire Burn captures several extraordinary moments in the media. It’s five years after CNN’s founding, but when you see Walt Hunter crouching behind parked cars as gunfire echoes down the street, it feels as if the 24-hour news cycle is just percolating down to the local level. “It was one of the first times that they went live and stayed live,” Osder says. “At one point, you see [reporter] Harvey Clark with an untied tie around his neck. Now, you have to think someone would say, ‘Either tie the tie or take it off.’”
It’s also, Osder points out, a time when metropolitan police departments were just starting to become militarized, when they had access to weaponry they didn’t yet know how to control. “People ask me if this could happen today,” Osder says, “and my answer is ‘No,’ but not for the reason you might think. Brutality and racism haven’t gone away, but I don’t think you’d see anything like this in an American city because they’re better at controlling the story. The reason it wouldn’t happen today is that the police are better at violence. They have such better equipment, and such superior tactics, that they would storm that house and take those people out like freakin’ RoboCop.”
Let the Fire Burns screens at the Philadelphia Film Festival on Sat., Oct. 26, 2 p.m., at the Prince Music Theater and opens to the public on Fri., Nov. 1 at Ritz at the Bourse.