Did Frank Rizzo Try to Prevent the MOVE Bombing?

My Q&A with the director of the brilliant new documentary, Let the Fire Burn.

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I just finished screening Let the Fire Burn, a fascinating new documentary about the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia. And whether you think you know everything there is to know about the MOVE bombing or you’ve never even heard of it, you need to see this film.

Let the Fire Burn is made exclusively of found footage, edited together to form an edge-of-your-seat narrative: There’s MOVE Commission hearing testimony from MOVE members, District Attorney Ed Rendell, Mayor Wilson Goode and Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor; local news broadcasts featuring Larry Kane, Jim Gardner and Vernon Odom; and an uncomfortable-to-watch video deposition of a 13-year-old Michael Moses Ward, aka Birdie Africa (seen below), the sole child survivor of the fire. (Coincidentally, Ward recently died on a cruise ship.)


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This is no one-sided propagandizing documentary. Yes, Let the Fire Burn does condemn the city's leaders and explore the question of whether police used gunfire to force MOVE members back into the blazing house when they were trying to escape into a police-filled alley hidden from the view of the news cameras. But it also takes a frank look at MOVE and the combative group's actions that led up to that fateful day in May 1985, when 11 people–including five children–were killed after police dropped a bomb on MOVE headquarters.

The New York Times calls Let the Fire Burn "riveting." New York Magazine says it's "electrifying." Variety deems it "mesmerizing." I call it Oscar-worthy. You'll get the chance to see for yourself when the movie premieres at the Philadelphia Film Festival on October 21st (sold out) and 26th, followed by theatrical release on November 1st.

After the trailer, my interview with director and Philadelphia native Jason Osder, who tells me what didn't make it into the film, including an intriguing detail about the late Frank Rizzo.

Where were you when the bomb went off?
Well, I couldn't have been at school when the bomb was dropped, because it happened at night. But all of my memories of it are from elementary school. I went to the Miquan School near Conshohocken. I remember my peers and teachers and this sense of tension and foreboding. In retrospect as an adult, it was one of those moments when adults are freaked out and kids know inherently, a palpable sense of being upset but not understanding why.

At what point did you decide to make this entirely with found footage?
That happened when the editor–Nels Bangerter–came on board. I was collecting all this footage for a decade, and conducting interviews. And he came in with a fresh perspective, sees everything all at once.

We realized that the interviews weren't as strong as we'd like them to be. And we realized there was really special potential in the material of the hearings. The things you want to do with a talking head and a narrator–move the story along, explain things–we could do those functions through the hearings. When you have a narrator, you relieve the pressure. In using the hearings, we keep the audience on their toes. We never give the audience a break.

It was an artistic risk-reward scenario. If it worked, it was really going to be something special. If it didn't work, we figured it would not work spectacularly, and we would know immediately.

So who was in the interviews that you wound up not using?
Ramona [Africa] a couple of times. Michael Ward, which was an exclusive. That was going to be the heart of the film. [Police officer] James Berghaier. [Reporter] Harvey Clark. For a long time, I was working on getting Goode. I got close, but in the end, I never got him.

Describe your interview with Birdie.
What really struck me was how similar he was as an adult to what you see in his testimony as a child. He looks down a lot. Mumbles a lot. Not responsive at times. When you watch the whole thing, it really speaks to the damage and arrested development. You can really see how he was emotionally affected.

But it's not very cinematic, and in essence, you have a person saying the same content at 13 and at 33. There's nothing better about the 33. Yeah, it's an exclusive, but if it doesn't help the film, it's not important.

There were moments where he substantiated that they were shot back into the house. There were a few moments where he seemed to make an even stronger case. But there was so much slippage on time frames. When you try to get a linear time sequence out of Ramona or Michael, it just… it had faded. You know that they were discombobulated inside that house.

With his passing, it's been a very difficult and strange thing, the timing of putting this out. We're obviously very sensitive to it, but we were already on the diving board. For me personally, I feel connected to him, yet I only met him once. It's the power of that deposition. I've done a lot of thinking about his reality, but that's different than knowing someone.

Someone on a panel I did brought up the fact that with his death, this incident that seemed so clouded in the past, now one of our best connections to it–the youngest survivor–his life is cut short, and another thread to this history is also cut.

What do you believe happened in that back alley?
I honestly think that the reality of truth is not accessible to us in any real way. I find it hard to believe that no shots were fired, but I don't think it's impossible that no shots were fired.

Listening to the story for years and years and trying to get to the bottom of it, the truths do not converge, they diverge. The more people you talk to and the longer amount of time that passes, the stories simply do not add up.

Something very bad happened back there. Some people say people were shot dead outside and dragged back into the house. There are people that say that no shots were fired. Some people say that MOVE shot at the police. But I couldn't get to a single version that made me comfortable enough to believe. I think it was very bad and very ugly what happened back there, and we all know what the result was. What do you think happened in that alley?

My gut feeling is that the cops shot at the MOVE members who were trying to come out.
That is very believable to me. How many attempts to leave the house were there? How many times did they go back inside? The time frames get so convoluted, but I do lend credence to what you're saying. It's hard to believe that no shots were fired at all.

Is there anything you learned that particularly surprised you?
Well, I am fascinated by something... I never had a way to get it into the film. But I heard from a number of people that [Frank] Rizzo, who was out of government at that time, was desperately trying to get Goode on the phone that day.

Why?
Rizzo had built that police force. And he thought Police Commissioner Sambor was bad news. The way I heard it, he thought Sambor was not right in his head from Vietnam. He wanted to tell Goode, "Get Sambor out of there." But in the story I was told, Rizzo could never reach Goode.