For years, the inscrutable ideology and less-than-neighborly (or hygienic) lifestyle of MOVE, the radical black separatist commune led by John Africa, was a thorn in the side of its working-class Philadelphia neighbors and a defiant finger in the eye of city authorities who sought to rein it in. Following accelerating confrontations, the conflict reached critical mass on May 13, 1985, when the city finally laid siege to the MOVE compound and dropped explosives on it, igniting a fire that was, by official decision, allowed to burn, eventually killing 11 people (five of them children) and destroying 60 houses – three city blocks – in the surrounding area.
In Let the Fire Burn, filmmaker Jason Osder evenhandedly presents the political drama of the conflagration and its subsequent investigations exclusively through the use of archival footage of news coverage, including the enlightening deposition of Birdie Africa, one of only two MOVE survivors, who was 13 at the time.
Austin Chronicle: How did you become interested in the MOVE conflagration?
Jason Osder: I grew up in Philadelphia and was 11 at the time of the bombing. As a child, I experienced this in a particular way: It was the first public tragedy in my memory, and thus the event that "woke me up" from childhood, to a wider, more troubling world.
AC: And why did you think this film needed to be made, all these years later?
JO: Well, it took me more than 10 years to make the film. So, to be sure, I would have put it out sooner! I do think that the incident (and I hope the film) provokes some moral and ethical questions that remain extremely relevant today.
AC: Having made the film, do you view the facts of the conflict differently than you did going into it?
JO: No, not in a factual way. I do think that when you make a film it is necessary to boil a difficult story down into an essential meaning – not the only meaning, but one that is satisfying in the context of the film.
AC: What would you like the viewer to take away from your film?
JO: Just to look at the world around them more critically. Where today is violence being done to people without regard for their humanity? Where are children being used as pawns in the political machinations of adults?
The Austin Film Society presents Let the Fire Burn as part of its AFS Doc Nights series on Tuesday, Feb. 11, at 7:30pm at AFS at the Marchesa (6226 Middle Fiskville). Visit www.austinfilm.org for complete details.
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