Let the Fire Burn

(USA, 2013, 95 mins, DCP)
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Screening in conjunction with Vancity Theatre’s Black History Month program, Let the Fire Burn proved one of the most highly rated audience favourites at last year’s VIFF. It’s also one of the most highly acclaimed films of 2013, with a Rotten Tomatoes aggregate score of 97% fresh.

Director Jason Osder carefully examines one of The City of Brotherly Love’s darkest moments: a devastating standoff in 1985 between the Philadelphia Police Department and the black liberation group MOVE. In an attempt to force the MOVE members out of their home, the police dropped explosives on the roof and then controversially allowed the fire to burn, resulting in the tragic and unnecessary deaths of 11 people, including five children. The documentary is an assembly of stock footage from court proceedings, testimonies and news reports with no omniscient narrator telling the audience how to think, leaving the viewer to come to their own conclusions about MOVE, the police and the traumatic event.

Expertly crafted by Osder, the film is a powerful work of excavation that finds elements of human drama in archival material, even discovering something resembling hope in the process, with the story of survivor Michael Moses Ward, then just 13 years old, who was rescued by one of the police officers on the scene, even as his fellow cops, it would seem, preferred to let the fire burn.

"The force and intrigue of a courtroom thriller… it ripples with urgency and moral complexity."—Screen

"The brilliantly edited tapestry of actions and reactions exposes a pattern of prejudice and fear capable of infinitely repeating itself." Ronnie Scheib, Variety

"Quietly terrifying." Stuart Klawans, The Nation