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Ramona Africa and Birdie Africa aka Michael Ward were the surviving residents of MOVE, a back-to-the-earth religious group prominent in the 1980s, when their row house headquarters was burned to the ground by the Philadelphia police. On May 13, 1985, two one-pound bombs were dropped on the home, killing MOVE’s leader, John Africa, five other adults and five children. It was the culmination of what had been years of resistance against police and the seemingly troublesome organization.
In the new documentary Let the Fire Burn, a 2013 Tribeca Film Festival debut currently playing at New York City’s Film Forum, Jason Osder culls archival footage — local news broadcasts, home-movie footage from inside the MOVE house and post-bombing hearings investigating the attack — to piece together the history and better understand both sides of the tragic conflict.
He discusses the choice to avoid the usual talking-head style, the sudden passing of Ward and what it means in the context of history plus how he plans to dive back into America’s history of violence with his next project.
How long did it take you to compile all your archival footage? Was it always your plan to employ that style?
I basically started researching this as a movie immediately after I finished film school, which was — I like to say more than 10 years, because I think about 10 years it stops really being bragging rights, it’s a little embarrassing. So I just say more than 10 years, and you can figure out exactly how many years more than 10. The choice to use archival footage came late in that process. It came after all the research was done and we’d shot interviews and we had a few more that we were targeting. It was when I brought on the editor, a guy by the name of Nels Bangerter. He sort of helped me see that the interviews had certain liabilities in them in terms of what was revealed. But the commission hearings had this special potential because you could do what you like to do with the talking head, or the narrator, which is, generally, exposition — you know, move the story forward — and also context. We could do that with the hearings, but it wouldn’t have the other problem with talking heads, which give the viewer a break, and someone’s going to explain it to me, rather than me having to interpret and deal with it. So we go, ‘If we never give the viewer that break, it’s gonna have a lot of tension and tautness for a film.’ And so, we decided to try it.
Hearing tapes and watching local news footage isn’t inherently cinematic. How do you push it to function in that way?
If you look at a more traditionally shot documentary, it comes down to camera angles and the way it’s shot, the way it’s constructed, the structure, the dramatic arc — and I think, actually, a lot of those things were in play from the fairly mundane, such as reframing the television-shaped footage and pushing in on it, chopping the top and the bottom in order to make it actually the size and the shape of cinema. And as a documentary filmmaker, the sense is, this is always what you do. You try to find the real, raw materials and make it into something cinematic. So once we made that one sort of radical decision, we tried to do everything else formally and classically and just made a great film.
Were you able to meet Michael Ward when you were conducting interviews for Let the Fire Burn? Did you see the bombing having an effect on his modern self?
I met and interviewed him some years ago. I wouldn’t say I’m close with him, but I would say I feel connected to him. This event is shrouded in the fog of history. Now one of our best witnesses who remembers what was going on … that line is cut. In terms of a deep context, in terms of American racial history and police brutality — a lot of that is not in the film. You might ask the question: What are the events that lead to this? If you’re a smart, young, African-American person like Ramona Africa, what’s going on in the country in the ’70s that makes this an appealing choice to you? There’s a lot going on before and after the story we tell. That’s always true in documentary and this was a particularly complicated one in all stages. We tried to do it with integrity. I think a film is good when it’s about one thing. So part of the job is to try and understand what the best thing is that this film can do and put that in a crucible and cook off anything that’s not contributing to your artistic vision for the film.
Is there a moment in the movie that you continue to feel the impact of that might be heartbreaking or shocking?
The film opens with Michael Ward’s testimony — that always hit me hard. I always thought that first bit about knowing what it means to tell the truth is something I wanted to have at the beginning of the film. But what’s more remarkable are peoples’ reactions. They say the final step in making a documentary is showing it to audiences. You finally understand the film you made. That’s the revelation — what I thought it meant and what it meant to people.
What was that audience reaction?
I thought it was going to be a film that would make people angry and comment with fist-shaking. What I found is that it’s quite the opposite. The content of the questions is what I expected, but the tone is sensitized. A challenging question is often caveated with ‘thank you for making this film.’ I showed the film to some people who are experts in outreach engagement, and a number of these people said things like, ‘This is a film you could take to neighborhoods in crisis as a conversation starter. I didn’t understand what they were talking about at that moment. Then I started to see it with audiences and how sensitized they were. They were almost traumatized.
Since Let the Fire Burn took many years to complete, are you at work on a new project?
A colleague of mine studies communications in the Arab world — he’s Arab-American himself and studies activism in the U.S. He introduced me to a story about an Arab-American activist, Alex Oedh, who was assassinated in 1985. He was assassinated when he went to his job at the Arab-American anti-discrimination committee, where he was West Coast communications director. He was killed by a planted bomb. The FBI, a few weeks later, said their main suspects were members of the Jewish Defense League, which was a militant Zionist organization in the U.S. But the suspects were shuttled back to Israel, and the murder remains unsolved today. In a way, this is a different take on history — I don’t think there will be a cache of archival footage — but there are young activists trying to keep this thing alive and pressure the Justice Department and Congress to take this more seriously. The idea is kind of a murder mystery: ‘Who killed Alex Oedh?’ but a further mystery about the nature of Arab-American political voices and activism in the United States. What does it mean if someone can be murdered for speaking their point of view and the FBI Doesn’t do all they can because it’s politically difficult? We’re going to be shooting relatively soon.
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