Let the Fire Burn

I got to see Let the Fire Burn at the Little on November 12. It's been a while, but I did want to give it a bit of a review.

It's an impressive document of the misguided actions of the Philadelphia government and police against the MOVE organization that led to them bombing and burning a house in 1985 containing 13 members, eleven of whom perished. In a way, it's a microcosm of war: both are avoidable, expensive, and deadly acts.

The most unique feature of the documentary is the exclusive use of found-footage which was limited to video (with a little 16mm film from an older documentary about MOVE.) Because of this limited perspective, there is very little information available about either MOVE and its purpose and actions, or about the police department and administration. Each side taken in isolation—MOVE changing from a radical urban alternative group to an antagonistic aggressor, and the government of the city of Philadelphia playing by-the-book as a racist regime—provides inadequate information to predict why things happened, but taken as interacting entities, it is more clear. Another way of saying that mouthful of marbles is that neither side was at fault as much as pitting them against one another was.

Director Jason Osder was available through SKYPE to discuss the film and revealed that the decision to go with found footage was partly pragmatic: our eye becomes accustomed to the poor quality of NTSC video unless we get a chance to compare it to modern high definition video. As a result, there are no talking heads to guide our reaction or provide possible answers. Ordinarily, we turn to some kind of expert to offer a possible explanation, but Let the Fire Burn gives no answers. It is the raw autopsy of a terrible moment in history left for us to examine.

And I think because of the lack of opinions, we gravitate toward our own biases. I was kind of surprised that one questioner presupposed it was centrally about racism. I thought it had more to do with the nature of a radical ideology that its ideas could not be articulated in a consumerist vocabulary. Neither interpretation is wrong, but it's interesting how our biases creep in.

Let me go back, now, and ruin the beauty of the movie by giving my own talking-head "expert" explanation.

I found the MOVE organization to be strictly following what we'd call urban gardening, veganism, anarchism, and acquiring goods locally. Rather than struggle in the capitalist/consumerist system that is rigged against both poor people and non-white people, MOVE opted instead to define their own rules. But the capitalist system—well, any social or economic (or socio-economic) system—is poorly suited to accommodating a sub-community whose internal rules are in defiance of the system's fundamental tenets.

This happens all the time with anarchist groups within the industrialized capitalism: anarchism defies the very nature of hierarchical, authoritative rule. The trouble is, most people do not like to admit that hierarchical, authoritative rules is a fundamental requirement of industrialized capitalism, so it's not codified in any laws: no law says you must pay for your own life. But for industrialized capitalism to work, it needs workers who are replaceable so they are valued low enough so the end product's price has a built-in profit—it needs for people to have to pay to exist.

If you think that's unfair, and maybe you could make a better go of it just living off the land and taking your changes, well, you're out of luck. The system goes a little nuts. The police will arrest you for no reason, but because no crime is committed, nobody gets charged with anything. But if you continue with that out-of-bounds behavior, you'll eventually be framed for a real crime. And then if you continue, you'll eventually be killed.

And that's what happened with MOVE. When they were harassed for non-crimes, they persisted. Then they were framed for a crime (specifically: nine people are still in prison, for the murder of one police officer—an impossibility since only one person can murder one other person.) And they persisted, and then were eventually killed. What they were "supposed to do" was to give up on the radical philosophies and get jobs like normal people.

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