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Film on '85 MOVE disaster comes to TV

“Let the Fire Burn” lets the footage speak for itself in telling a story in which there were only losers.

MOVE member Delbert Africa surrenders 8/8/1978 to police after a shoot out at MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia. James G. Domke / Inquirer Staff Photographer
MOVE member Delbert Africa surrenders 8/8/1978 to police after a shoot out at MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia. James G. Domke / Inquirer Staff PhotographerRead more


JASON OSDER was a fifth-grader living just outside Philadelphia on May 13, 1985, the day police firebombed the MOVE house on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia, igniting a fire in which 11 people, including five children, died, and the surrounding neighborhood was destroyed.

He never forgot.

Now an assistant professor at George Washington University, Osder's first documentary, "Let the Fire Burn," winner of the best local feature award at last year's Philadelphia Film Festival, makes its TV debut tonight on PBS' "Independent Lens."

It's a remarkably evenhanded telling of a story in which there could be no winners, using archival footage alone. Included is an early, poignant interview with one of the two survivors, Michael Moses Ward, the boy once known as Birdie Africa (who drowned in an accident last year during a cruise), as well as an account of the 1978 raid on the group in which Philadelphia Police Officer James Ramp was killed, setting the stage for the 1985 confrontation.

Osder leaves viewers to draw their own conclusions about the conduct of both MOVE and the police that horrific May day, but for me, the film's most memorable clip - because I require no reminder of the fire itself - is of the Rev. Paul Washington, the late rector of North Philadelphia's Church of the Advocate and a member of the commission formed to investigate the MOVE bombing.

"Just as a human being myself, I'm just trying to imagine myself in that situation, and behind me, there's a raging inferno, and in front of me, there are people who are saying, 'Come on out.' I'm trying to imagine what would cause me to turn back and run into the fire," Washington said during the questioning of police officers about what went on in the back alley of the MOVE house that day, when, they said, they'd simply told the MOVE members to come out with their hands up.

"I'm just trying to put myself in that person's skin," Washington tells an officer.

"I don't think you ever could. They were MOVE members," the officer replies.

"Well, you see, I knew a lot of those people as individuals and as human beings," Washington says in a gentle reproof, concluding, "It's probably a rhetorical question. I don't think you, from the way you've responded, you can answer that."

'Years' makes a move

"Years of Living Dangerously," Showtime's documentary series on climate change, moves to Mondays starting at 8 tonight.

The latest installment includes a segment on the damage from Superstorm Sandy in which New York Times columnist Mark Bittman questions New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's stance on man's role in climate change.

On Twitter: @elgray