I recently had the pleasure of interviewing director Jason Osder, on the topic of his latest film Let the Fire Burn, a powerful portrayal of the standoff between the Philadelphia Police Department and the black liberation group MOVE. Although I was completely humbled by my absolute ignorance of this tragic event that occurred the year of my birth, Osder was quick to reassure me that other factors are at work when it comes to the lack of education of momentous events in American history. In addition to tackling the media beast, Osder also addresses his choice to make the film entirely archival footage, as well as his vision for creating documentary films that aren’t quite candy, and not quite spinach, but somewhere in the happy medium. It’s a great analogy, I promise.
Cinedelphia: I’ll first make a really embarrassing confession; I’ve spent a majority of my life here, although I am not originally from Philadelphia, but I new very little if anything about this event. And I went to school here!
Jason Osder: But you didn’t live here at the time?
C: No I didn’t, I was born in 1985 though.
JO: Well, I don’t know, I mean I understand what you are saying, and in a way you look for documentary opportunities or stories to tell where afterward people will say, “Oh, wow, why didn’t I know that,” but I don’t think it’s necessarily on you, In a way, it’s on not having a healthy media environment. Why isn’t this covered? Why isn’t it in a history book, quite frankly. I assume you know what Waco was?
C: Yes, I do
JO: And so that’s, you know, why is one more well known than the other? Yeah, you kind of want to make people feel that way in a film.
C: I got to thinking why certain events are more engrained in historical memory and others like this one aren’t, and I thought, maybe the lack of prolific 24-hour news media that’s national, or the fact that this event, while tragic, only lasted a day, or maybe because MOVE is a group unique to Philadelphia? What are your thoughts on why this isn’t a more widely known event?
JO: Well CNN did exist, and they covered it for a couple nights, but they did not send a crew. Part of what interested me about it is that early in that 24-hour news cycle, it’s one of the first examples where the local news in this case, goes live and stays live, and certainly that made it an interesting thing to make a film about. You can see the weirdness, and the uncomfortableness about that. They’re just figuring out things, they got this camera up on a pole and they’re just trying to figure it out, and they’re staying live with the reporters even with gunfire going off in the background. So that always interested me about it.
As far as why it’s not as well known as history? I mean in my way of thinking, one of the reasons has to do with some limitations traditionally in the way our media works. They don’t seem to do so well with complexity, and a story that has an essential aspect of race in America, but that’s also really complex, and it’s difficult to flatten out and clearly define who the good guys and bad guys are. I think our media has been fairly limited in the way it’s been able to deal with those complexities. Another and perhaps the biggest reason is, for things to stay in the media’s attention, they need a constituency that keeps them there, and sort of stirs the pot and keeps it going. And a lot of the national constituency, the black leadership that you expect would maybe do something in a situation like that, really did not know what to do with the incident. Because you have Wilson Goode on one side, who’s pretty consistent with the image he is trying to put forward, and you have MOVE who is actually not very consistent in their image. So what you are left with, the only people who are left to really keep this in focus would be the neighbors themselves. And no one’s listening to them! So you just don’t have anyone to stir the pot and you need that for something to become a big deal in the media.
JO: They were definitely being manipulated like pieces on a chess board. Why was there not a better plan to remove the disruptive MOVE members? I mean part of that really comes down to, you know, it was such an incendiary thing. The city leadership basically did not want to be involved in the planning stages because they did not want to be blamed later. So you have it going further and further down the chain of command with everyone saying, “well if I don’t read it, then nobody can say it was my fault,” you know? There is a lot of political expediency, and covering of asses, and a lot of fear about being held responsible.
C: You did interview a few people for the film, but ultimately decided to stick with the archival footage, including the testimony of a young Michael Ward, who really, I think, is the heart of the film. Was there a difference between Michael Ward speaking about the event as a child and as an adult?
JO: I never wanted to go too wide angle with the film. The more people you include who may have been apart of the event, or have an opinion about it, the more the film becomes a broad, bland, mosaic. Michael Ward’s testimony has a sort of unassailability coming from a child, and he had an inherent innocence, and I wanted to maintain a watching experience where the viewer continually struggles to know who they could trust. But he was the one you could fundamentally trust, in a sense he didn’t know how to lie and it uncovers some very telling things on both sides. It reveals some of the details inside the house, but also sort of the idea that, you know, weird is what you are used to. What fascinated me about MOVE was that in some ways they are weird, and in others they are completely normal. And when Michael says things like “they didn’t believe in spanking, but they would yell and make us cry,” and you know, he was asked “Did they say I love you?,” and he replies “yes,” and “Did you love them?,” “yes,” and you know it wasn’t all that different from a family. It’s your family that’s what it is, and that’s all you know. So I think his testimony is very telling in a lot of ways.
Interviewing him as an adult was also very telling but not as cinematic. The one takeaway I had was how similar he was as a child and as an adult. His body language is similar, his way of responding is similar. Everything about him was the same 20 years later. The interview I did with him is actually 2 hours long and he speaks a lot about arrested development and what he went through, but it wasn’t very cinematic and it didn’t necessarily share any more information than what we already knew. In general, how I felt about the interviews I did was, it’s not that I don’t think those present viewpoints are needed, it’s that they didn’t do what I needed them to do to tell a compelling story and make a better film. There’s a certain aesthetic when it comes to historical documentaries of subjects looking into the camera and saying, “Oh, I’ll never forget that day,” or other exclamations that sort of peel back the emotional layers, but for instance, a woman like Ramona [Editor’s note: Ramona was the only adult MOVE member that survived the confrontation] isn’t going to do that. She’s not going to breakdown for you on camera because that’s not who she is.
C: Were your interview subjects just very much still in the same mindset they were in 1985?
JO: My model for interviews is the film One Day in September, and I wanted people who were directly effected by the event, not just bystanders or witnesses. And I thought that could be the thread of the story. And I don’t think I found that people were still right back there as much as the event was just calcified for them. There wasn’t a sense of progression, or a sense of new insights, and it wasn’t exactly fresh for them. Except for James Berkhower, who does go back there, and every time you talk to him it’s like a flashback. But it was different for the others, for instance Ramona, she is a professional activist and she is very polished and knows how to present her argument, she stays on point. A very good politician. And that’s not very hard to get, you know, she didn’t give anything, and that’s totally fine, you know, that’s her job. So for the good of the film, we made some choices that allowed us to tell the most effective story possible for a cinematic audience.
C: As an educator, how do you approach a project like this to make it both meaningful to those who watch it, to educate them, as well as make it cinematical?
JO: I don’t try to buy into that dichotomy. One of the most powerful ways we communicate, or learn is through stories. Essays and dialogues are nice, but the really fundamental way people make a connection is “Once upon a time….something happened,” right? So that’s sort of the challenge for me, it’s not really an academic approach which is why you do film instead of a treatise. Another way to think about it is candy and spinach. MTV is candy and PBS is spinach. I don’t like spinach but I feel better after eating it because I feel I accomplished something that was good for me. Like, ” I’m a better person because I watched this,” and I’m sorry, but you aren’t a better person, you’re only better if it changes what you do going forward. And candy obviously is Miley Cyrus’ latest outfit. I’m not trying to do either, I’m trying to find a happy medium, by making something that tastes good and also has some nutritional value. You watch it like an action movie, but then at the end are left thinking, “Oh this is real,” and you know, you start to process some of the complexities. Easy to consume, but hard to digest.
Let the Fire Burn is now playing at the Ritz Bourse.