A haunting look at when Phila. burned

The shells of homes destroyed by fire after the MOVE house in West Philadelphia was bombed.
The shells of homes destroyed by fire after the MOVE house in West Philadelphia was bombed. (From "Let the Fire Burn")
Posted: October 21, 2013

As Jason Osder tells it, in 1985 he was 11, a fifth-grader at the Miquon School in Conshohocken, when news broke that after a daylong standoff, the Philadelphia Police and Fire Departments had bombed the MOVE headquarters on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. Six adults, including John Africa, the activist/provocateur/founder of the back-to-nature group, and five children were incinerated in the resulting fire, which also destroyed 60 other homes.

One of the two members who survived, Michael Moses Ward (known then as Birdie Africa) was 13, just two years older than Osder.

"It seemed so senseless," Osder said in a phone interview Wednesday. "I worried - could this happen to me?"

If it unsettled Osder at 11, it shocked him at 18 that his fellow students at the University of Florida had never heard about the bombing. So at 26, fresh out of graduate school, Osder embarked on a 12-year voyage that culminated in Let the Fire Burn, an electrifying account of the tragedy told entirely through archival footage.

The film will have local premieres Monday and Saturday at the Philadelphia Film Festival. After the 2 p.m. Saturday screening, Osder will appear on a panel with MOVE survivor Ramona Africa, authors Michael and Randi Boyette, and Jim Berghaier, the Philadelphia policeman who rescued Birdie Africa. (In a heartbreaking coincidence, Ward died last month at 41.)

"How did an attempt to evict MOVE members become an inferno that killed 11 people and destroyed 61 homes?" TV newsman Jim Gardner asks in a 1985 audio clip heard in the film. From 100 hours of archival footage and interviews, Osder, 39, now a media professor at George Washington University, distills the answers down to 95 minutes.

He weaves clips from a MOVE-approved documentary, police debriefing films, televised news reports, and video footage of the commission convened to investigate the incident, permitting viewers to see the events from multiple vantages and time frames. He had filmed talking-head interviews with many involved, but 10 years into the project decided to jettison them for the archival footage, which has the effect of keeping the movie in the present tense, emphasis on the tense.

The movie includes testimony from the players at the time - District Attorney Ed Rendell, Councilman Lucien Blackwell, Police Chief Gregore Sambor, Mayor Wilson Goode, MOVE members Louise James and LaVerne Sims (John Africa's sisters) - and a deposition taken from Birdie Africa, then 13 but so undernourished he looked years younger.

The result is a three-act Greek tragedy of considerable nuance. Its first act intercuts Birdie Africa's soft-spoken 1985 deposition with the bluster of Mayor Frank Rizzo threatening in 1978 to dispatch his Police Department to MOVE's Powelton Village headquarters "to drag 'em out by the back of their necks."

By using the MOVE Commission hearings to foreshadow or drill deeper into what happened, Osder moves backward and forward in time, seeking forensic evidence.

There is the 1978 MOVE situation - profanity-laced tirades, arms stockpiling, garbage piled in the yard, naked children - that prompted complaints from neighbors and the resulting shootout that took the life of a police officer and put nine MOVE members in prison for terms of 30 to 100 years.

And there's the mystery of the incendiary 1985 confrontation: Did MOVE members die on Osage Avenue because they feared that if they ran from the burning building, police would kill them? (Birdie's first words to Officer Jim Berghaier were, "Don't shoot.")

The film's eventual shape reflects both Osder's process and his deepening understanding of the events.

"I don't have super-crisp memories of 1985, but, being an adult now, I remember how hard it was for adults to articulate what happened. What I heard was passionate and one-sided, along the lines of, 'MOVE got what they deserved,' or, 'The authorities were in a tough position, they probably overreacted.' "

That, he says, "would be my 1985 answer to the Jim Gardner question."

The answer he would have given in 2001, the year he began work on the film, is really more of a question: "When do legitimate protests and demonstrations become terroristic and infringe on the rights of others? MOVE was very good at pushing boundaries and testing those limits."

"In 2013, I would say, throughout the process of making the documentary and asking myself what the film is really about, I would answer that it's about: How does the unthinkable happen?"

For Osder, the answer to that question is, "When we look at a person and see a label instead of a human being, that is the first step toward the unthinkable."

He hopes the film makes viewers think of other places where violence is being done to people without regard for their humanity. In Philadelphia the inhumanity cut both ways, says Osder - some police spoke of MOVE members as "subhuman"; some MOVE members labeled cops "pigs."

Twelve years after he started the film and 28 years after the bombing, Osder says with a laugh, "Making a first film about MOVE is a little like learning how to mountain-climb on Everest."

He turns serious when he notes that "with Michael's recent death, we've lost our most important eyewitness to history." And he notes, "There's nothing to commemorate the people who died or were dislocated by the MOVE bombing."

He is wrong about that. Let the Fire Burn is both a heartfelt memorial to the departed and damaged and a reminder of an inhuman chapter in civic history.


For information on Philadelphia Film Festival times, venues, and tickets, go to filmadelphia.org/festival

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