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Originally published Thursday, December 5, 2013 at 3:05 PM

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‘Let the Fire Burn’: Emotions smolder long after conflict

A 3.5-star review of ‘Let the Fire Burn,” a documentary made entirely of archival footage of a 1985 police action in Philadelphia.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 3.5 stars

‘Let the Fire Burn,’ a documentary directed by Jason Osder. 95 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Varsity.

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A unique and disturbing work, Jason Osder’s documentary “Let the Fire Burn” uses only archival footage to tell the story of a terrible day in a Philadelphia neighborhood 28 years ago. On May 13, 1985, tensions between the Philadelphia police and the members of an activist group known as MOVE boiled over, and after many hours of gunshots and fire (ignited by a bomb the police dropped on the MOVE house), 11 people were dead, and dozens more had lost their nearby homes to the flames.

Everything we see in this movie comes from that day, and the days and weeks closely following it: television footage as the tragedy unfolds, public hearings in which officials try to make sense of what happened, deposition footage of a soft-voiced young boy named Michael, who was one of only two survivors of the fire. It’s a tumultuous chorus of voices, many contradicting each other: It’s not clear which side opened fire first; who was responsible for letting the fire burn (the police chief and fire chief, stone-faced, each sidestep responsibility; the mayor says he told them to put it out); why this inferno was allowed to destroy an entire neighborhood; why a bomb was dropped on a house containing six children (five of whom died).

It’s remarkable, gripping storytelling, told in grainy footage that nonetheless crackles with life, and it leaves the viewer angry at the senseless loss of lives and property. A clergyman, on the hearings panel, quietly reminds us what’s at the heart of the entire, yearslong war between the police and MOVE: that it’s possible to forget, in the heat of anger and procedure, that the person on the other side of a conflict is a human being. Ultimately, the police and fire department were found negligent, but no charges were ever filed against them. The fire, it would seem, burns on.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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