Philadelphia Story: 'Let the Fire Burn' Tells Morality Tale through Archival Footage
Last spring I covered the Tribeca Film Festival for Documentary magazine. I thought that the quality of documentary films was very strong. New HD cameras help to make the images sing, but the films that really jumped out at me relied heavily on archival footage. The most rigorous use of archival was seen in Jason Osder's Let the Fire Burn, which tells the story of MOVE, the radical group that sparred with the city of Philadelphia in the 1970s and '80s. The conflict culminated in May 1985, when local authorities bombed the MOVE-occupied rowhouse, resulting in the deaths of 11 people and the destruction of 61 homes.
Let the Fire Burn is comprised entirely of available footage. For me, it was the standout film of the festival—and it earned an award for Best Editing of a Documentary Feature and a Special Jury Mention for Best New Documentary Director.
I recently traded e-mails with Osder because I wanted to find out more about the film-but even more importantly, I wanted to do what I could to get others to see it.
Documentary: First, tell me a little about your filmmaking background. How did you came to work on this particular project?
Jason Osder: I developed an passion for documentary at the Documentary Institute Program at the University of Florida; this group has now become the Documentary Film Program at Wake Forest University. I can't say that I had more than a vague idea what it was all about before I went to school there, but I found a mode of communication that seemed to suit my way of thinking and fulfill a longing for expression that I can always remember having.
As for the MOVE story, it is something I remember from being a child growing up in Philadelphia. As a child, you lack the frames that most adult use to understand an event like this: race relations, or police brutality, or militarization or what have you. For me, I was just scared.
Later, when I went away to college, I remember that this event that had loomed large in my childhood was basically unknown to my peers from other parts of the country.
D: Do you think that the fact that you identified with the story, from a childhood perspective, influenced the storytelling? I ask this in relation to the nature of the deposition footage. It really exists in this strange realm where the child has an intense sense of maturity and gravitas.
JO: Absolutely, it influenced the storytelling.
I'm not sure that I would use the word maturity, but I think in a film where the audience is asked to question the truth, the testimony is sort of unimpeachable.
D: I am particularly interested in the way in which archival footage was used in the film. Can you talk me through the process of making the film from this perspective? At what point did you settle on the idea of taking a very rigorous and formal approach to the project in terms of using only archival footage?
JO: I have to give the editor, Nels Bangerter, major credit for this decision. It happened when he came on and reviewed the footage. I had shot a handful of interviews. I was not interested in interviewing a wide range of people, but getting to the heart of the story through a select group of emotionally revealing interviews with people whose lives had been changed by the events. I had shot most of the ones I wanted, including Michael Ward [who is seen as a boy in the film—and who recently died in an accidental drowning; he had been the only surviving child of the bombing.].
When Nels came on, he reviewed all of the material that I had been collecting for nearly a decade, and saw that there were special possibilities of working with the archival material, especially the hearings. He was the first to realize that we could build drama in those hearing scenes while also delivering the exposition and context that a viewer would need. There was a bit more to it than that, but the whole discussion—from suggestion to deciding to at least attempt to cut the film in this style— happened in less than 48 hours.
Once we made that one radical decision, we strongly agreed that everything else about our approach should be formal, rigorous and classical.
D: The lack of mediation really works. It takes the footage out of both its social structure and the current one. I was recently talking to Chad Fredrichs, director of The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. He is thinking he will only make historical films using entirely archival footage from now on. What's next for you?
JO: Actually, I am looking at another incident from 1985—the assassination of an Arab-American activist named Alex Odeh.
It is still early, but it looks like an opposite approach: exploring the relationship between past and present more overtly by focusing on the present-day efforts of activists trying to get the unsolved murder taken more seriously by the Justice Department and the FBI. It is likely that the historical mystery will be revealed through observational shooting of the present-day investigation .
D: Most people who see a film aren't going to have any idea about the amount of work that went into it.
JO: Well, that is always true, and in a sense, it is what we are going for. A film should feel effortless, like there was no other way it could have happened . . . but I get your point.
D: That is, it isn't simply a matter of getting some tapes, going through them and putting it all together to make "sense" of the story. Can you tell me about the thought process that went into choosing and working with this subject matter? What I'm looking for is something that talks about the ideas in relation to race, power and media—that in some ways can most effectively be dealt with the critical distance of both time and in a way separation—that feels like it could only have been done in this manner using only archival footage.
JO: Well, this is the only way to make this film, but there are other films to be made that would say something different about this subject matter. There are storylines and themes that fell away, partly because we decided to use an all-archival approach.
I think the strength here is that it becomes a morality play. I think it will be "timeless" in the sense that it will always seem to say something critical about the present day. It will not date in the way a film with interviews or narration always places itself in the time it was made. This is placed in the time that it happened—like a stage play. There are also valid criticisms for doing it this way.
I also think audiences are changing. They are hyper-sensitized to manipulation. This sort of pastiche approach is a way to defuse some of that suspicion.
Finally, it was always a puzzle with this story: how to represent a "truth" that is so fraught with conflicting versions? In the end, using the archive is a way that the viewer was always aware that they were seeing a perspective reframed turned out to be the best answer to that challenge of representation. Every piece of footage already had an agenda before it was part of our film; the viewer knows and needs to grapple with this.
Let the Fire Burn opens October 2 at New York's Film Forum through Zeitgeist Films, with openings across the country to follow through December. For more information, click here.
Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Bellinson in the award-winning production studio Rumur. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain.