Let the Fire Burn (2013)

Post submitted by Lamont Lilly.

Director: Jason Osder

LetFireBurn1On Friday, September 20th 2013, the Full Frame Theatre in Durham, NC hosted the premiere of a film called Let the Fire Burn by filmmaker and director, Jason Osder. It was supposed to premiere during the Full Frame Film Festival in April, but had to postpone its Durham debut until Full Frame’s Third Friday Free Film Series. It was a documentary about the bombing of an organization called MOVE and historical developments concerning the group’s political repression by the city of Philadelphia since 1978. Osder’s premiere of Let The Fire Burn was absolutely riveting.

Prior to the film’s core storyline of the 1985 bombing, Let The Fire Burn details the Philadelphia Police Department’s 1978 raid on MOVE’s Powelton Village home in West Philadelphia. It also shares the story of the MOVE 9, members of the organization who have currently been in prison for 35 years. Carefully cut, the footage is raw and very intense, penetrating the pores of struggle from the front row. As Let The Fire Burn journeys from one decade to the next, viewers never lose a beat.

On August 8th 1978, the Philadelphia Police Department raided MOVE’s communal residence in Powelton Village on grounds of “conspiracy and suspicious activity.” During the raid, Philadelphia police officer, James Ramp was somehow shot and killed. Ballistics and state evidence pointed to friendly fire. Yet, nine MOVE members were convicted of the murder of one cop and sentenced to 30 to 100 years in federal prison. The sentencing judge would later admit that he had no idea who fired the fatal bullet. The few guns that were seized from MOVE’s home were later found to be inoperative by state investigators. Two days later, their Powelton Village home was destroyed by city bulldozers as the group was forced to relocate.

Osder’s visual lens then takes you to the year 1985 to MOVE’s new address on 6221 Osage Ave. The group’s new location was in a quiet and cozy section of Philadelphia’s black working class district called Cobbs Creek. MOVE’s alternative lifestyle was a severe contrast to the neighborhood’s accepted norms and values. Complaints from neighbors reported profanity projected through loudspeakers, children exposed nude publicly, and vast amounts of unwanted varmints. Piles of compost and human waste also created disdain. In all fairness, MOVE members were also advocates of religious freedom, animal rights, gender equality and racial solidarity. Nevertheless, the Philadelphia Police Department leveraged those concerns to wage war. Publicly, the decision to raid the group’s new location was to “clean up the building and arrest members who had outstanding warrants.” As Let The Fire Burn so vividly depicts, the Philadelphia Police Department’s assault on May 13th 1985, would mark an American tragedy.

That was the day over 200 Philadelphia police officers gathered outside of MOVE’s home on Osage Ave. That was the day over 10,000 rounds of police ammunition was used against unarmed citizens. Officers claimed they were fearful of MOVE’s massive collection of firearms and explosives. Yet, no automatic weapons were found in MOVE’s residence. Initially, officers deployed tear gas through broken windows. Then water, lots of it. One thousand gallons of water per minute were dispersed via the Philadelphia Fire Department from the roof and sides of the house.

LetFireBurn2All of a sudden a bomb was dropped on MOVE’s roof from a police helicopter. Four pounds of C4 explosives were dropped on a row house full of people. Minutes later, another bomb was dropped. When informed about the developments of this violent occurrence, Philadelphia’s African American Mayor, Wilson Goode consciously responded on live video to “Just let the fire burn.” The water hoses that were once pumping thousands of gallons of water per minute were turned off. A raging fire that had already killed 11 people was intentionally allowed to spread. In just a few brief hours, 61 homes had been completely destroyed—memories and life-savings leveled to worthless ashes. Mayor Goode watched the destruction from his office television at City Hall. Only two MOVE survivors exited the burning building – activist, Ramona Africa and a young boy named Birdie, whose testimony and childhood descriptions were documented throughout the film.

In 95 minutes, Osder’s documentary captures this entire saga, plus more. The fabric in which Osder weaves this story is absolutely surreal. Local news channels were covering the entire event live. Much of the film’s footage was cut and clipped from on-the-ground sources actually present that day. The use of archival video was pivotal in this piece. Nels Bangeter was the film’s chief editor, a role quite critical when considering there wasn’t much originally created or produced, here.

Let The Fire Burn took over 10 years to make. And that’s exactly how it looks, meticulous, time-consuming and well crafted. Osder’s eye sculpts the film seamlessly on a tightrope of truth without bias. During the post Q&A, he discussed how most media sources demonized the organization, referring to MOVE as terrorists. Yet, he saw them as human beings who had caught an “extremely raw deal of injustice.” Jason Osder grew up in Philadelphia, stating that “The timing of it dawned on my conscience even as a small child. It was the moment that cracked my childhood shell.”

As for MOVE, this film isn’t just a movie—it’s real lives that are painfully still playing out. Eight of the original MOVE 9 members have been in prison for 35 years now. Merle Africa died while incarcerated in 1998. In 1996, federal courts mandated the city of Philadelphia to pay out $1.5 million to one of the survivors and relatives of two members who were killed in the 1985 bombing. As Let The Fire Burn clearly illustrates, justice is still waiting in this case. Truth is still waiting to be unleashed.

Lamont Lilly is a contributing editor with the Triangle Free Press, Human Rights Delegate with Witness for Peace and organizer with Workers World Party. He resides in Durham, NC.

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Elysium (2013)

This review contains spoilers for a film currently in theaters

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Earth in poverty

Earth in poverty

Elysium is a major blockbuster set in a dystopian future where the rich people of Earth have fled for a space station in orbit named Elysium. In this version of the future, Earth has deteriorated to such an extent that the rich no longer find it habitable and thus only make trips to the planet to manage corporations or oversee the oppressive legal system. There are various social issues that the film deals with that are of interest to the Left which has of course alarmed Fox News and right wing blogs. While there is more to the film than the political content, we will mostly focus on the politics of Elysium and what we should take away from it.

Matt Damon plays the films main character (named Max) struggling to make it by as a factory worker troubled by a criminal past. Max’s struggle in the film exposes the various social and political struggles that we can see prevalent today: class struggle, lack of health care, immigration, and to an extent the military industrial complex. The contradictions of the society are highlighted simply in a sequence where he is on his way to work: he leaves his home and is harassed and assaulted by the police (who have been replaced by androids instead of actual humans), has to speak with his robot parole officer who extends his parole because of the incident, arrives at work late to be told he is too injured to work but will be docked half a day’s pay instead, and then starts his job which is itself to produce more androids like the kind that injured him in the first place.

The automatic parole officer of the future

The automatic parole officer of the future

The major turning point for Max is when he is told by his supervisor to enter an unsafe situation which ultimately leads to an accident where he is exposed to radiation and is essentially left for dead by the company of which CEO just wants Max to leave the building (this of course wouldn’t happen if they had a union!) This leads to a set of events where Max works with a criminal organization that he had previously associated with to attempt to steal information from the rich CEO to make it easier for the organization to sneak people into Elysium.

While Max’s drama plays out, a plot to carry out a coup is being attempted on Elysium by Jodi Foster’s character who in some sense could be seen an analogy to the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen. The coup plans fall into the hands of Max through their data heist of the CEO and they discover that they have the power to make all of Earth’s population citizens of Elysium. Through the typical twists and turns of a major action film, this is eventually carried out, making the struggle for legalization for all and access to health care (both of which were motivated by a reaction to unsafe working conditions) the major conclusions of the film. This of course is not typical for a Hollywood blockbuster, which led Vice to go as far as to claim that Hollywood was tricked into making a radical film.

Elysium

Elysium

The film itself is not without flaws. Evil bad guys like the main paramilitary man trying to capture Max are a bit shallow, and the action scenes were a bit cliche at times. But if we are to look at the less-than-subtle political message that comes through to an audience of millions, the film is praiseworthy. The cliche shortcomings and sometimes strange story developments aside, the film is also entertaining and stands out as a sci fi film on its own, although it would be hard not to be excited about a major film where providing healthcare to all citizens of Earth is the conclusion. Elysium has received mixed reviews, not for the political content which has been the focus by political commentators of course, but rather for the problems of the film itself. While the director apparently denied that the film was political, it would be quite difficult to ignore the fact that almost every major plot point in the film corresponds to a major social issue that the Left focuses on today.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Director: Ryan Coogler

fvstation2Fruitvale Station is a dramatization of the murder of Oscar Grant. While it doesn’t contain any explicit political overtones, its existence is politically significant. Usually dramatizations of people’s lives are reserved for artists, world “leaders” and the like rather than victims of police brutality. Yet this film is an attempt to put a human face on a prominent recent victim of such an incident.

For those who are not familiar with the case, Oscar Grant was murdered by police in Oakland, California in 2009. The subsequent trial of the officer who shot Grant resulted in a mere 2 year sentence, and only 11 months were served. These events led to riots and an intensification of the anti-police brutality movement in California and this film can, in a sense, be seen as part of that movement.

The film closely details the last day in Grant’s life, from his struggle to stop selling marijuana to his attempts of getting his job at a supermarket back, to the emotional (and adorable) interactions with his daughter. These sequences did not in themselves contain much politically significant content, but rather need to be situated as the “humanizing” of a victim of the state. Usually when the police kill someone, the media and entertainment industries either don’t pay attention or assume that it was the victim’s fault. This film turns that narrative on its head (and was able to because of the blatantly obvious case of wrong doing on the police’s behalf for this particular incident).

fvstation3Some reviews of the film so far have focused on this humanizing effort that the film engages in to criticize it. The AV club says that “[p]utting a human face on a public tragedy that already had a human face, Fruitvale Station plays like an uncomplicated eulogy, with little more to say on its subject than ‘what a shame this bad thing happened.'” Variety says that the film is guilty of promoting a “relentlessly positive portrayal of its subject.” While I would usually agree that over humanizing of politically significant events like the death of Oscar Grant cheapen and oversimplify these issues (which discourages political responses in favor of “case by case” dealings), I would say that the very nature of this film makes it a rare exception.

What sets this humanizing effort apart from other stories set in the United States can be made clear from the questions raised by AP writer Jesse Washington: “If Grant was a real person, what about all these other young black males rendered as cardboard cutouts by our merciless culture? What other humanity are we missing?”

The very project of humanizing the subject of a police murder is an attempt to bring light to not only his case, but effectively brings light to the issue of police violence in general. On top of the social and cultural role the film plays, it is also well done and should be watched on that merit alone.

South of the Border (2009)

Director: Oliver Stone

"The Bolivarians"

“The Bolivarians”

With the death of Hugo Chavez on Tuesday, an important film to revisit is Oliver Stone’s South of the Border. This documentary follows the rise of the Pink Tide in Latin America and the accomplishments that the various governments in question have made.

I first saw this film during a screening at the 2010 United States Social Forum in Detroit. The crowd’s optimism about the developments (that are still ongoing) in Latin America was quite clear: from cheering on in various scenes, to hissing when Stone claimed that he believed there could be a “benign capitalism.” The screening was followed by a Q and A with Venezuelan and Cuban representatives to ALBA to continue the optimistic appraisal.

Hugo Chavez plays a key role in this documentary, as well as in facilitating the rise of this so called Pink Tide. Almost all of the leaders that follow in a sense play as a footnote to his historic victory in the late 1990s. His Presidency is something they all (with the exception of Raul Castro of course) acknowledge an indebtedness to throughout the film.

Chavez and Stone

Chavez and Stone

Towards the end of the film, there is a great hope expressed for the Barack Obama’s administration taking a new path. As we now see the administration in its 5th year, it has demonstrated no significant signs of change toward Latin America (The Honduran Coup being the prime example, along with continued support for the Venezuelan opposition) and has instead remained mostly consistent with previous administrations. This previous feeling of hope could be met with plenty of “I told you so” by the Left. But it fits in with the overall positive tone of the film which saw one of the primary messages as simply debunking US media conceptions of leaders like Hugo Chavez.

Along with Chavez’s electoral victory, the film contextualizes the history of IMF imposed structural adjustment and mass movements in response that helped pave the way for left leaning parties to assume the helm of governing the various countries in question. Evo Morales, in discussing Tupac Katari’s quote about dying as one and returning as millions, proclaims at the end of the film that “now we are millions.” This is the underlying theme of the film: the populist movements of Latin America are something to be admired and praised, not demonized. The film is mostly successful in promoting this counter-narrative and on top of its positive political message is an achievement in documentary film making.

Promised Land (2012)

Director: Gus Van Sant

(Spoilers follow)

The Small Town

The Small Town

Promised Land is a film about the energy extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking” for short). This process has become a flash point for environmentalists over the past few years, and this film staring Matt Damon serves as an attack on the way in which companies enter small towns to secure the rights to being using the method. The way the film portrays the struggle between the town and the fracking company is interesting and not boiled down to a simplistic “good vs evil” narrative with unlikable company men and heroic townsfolk. Instead, a more realistic portrayal of how complex story is told, although the message of the film clearly comes through.

Matt Damon’s character and his partner, played by Frances McDormand, visit the small town to convince the people living there to sell their land so the company can begin the process of fracking. As they gain momentum, a small town hall meeting is disrupted by a high school science teacher who points out the major flaws with the practice. This sets off a series of difficulties for the company that become further aggravated by the arrival of a small environmentalist group.

The sequence of the environmentalist, played by John Krasinski, gaining popularity in the town is where the film demonstrates its aim of a populist anti-corporate message. It sometimes feels that each scene is structured in such a way as to show support by the folks in the town for the environmentalist message over the corporate attempts to begin their work. One excellent example of this is a karaoke scene where the woman from the company attempts to sign a song and is largely ignored, while the environmentalist’s performance is met with enthusiastic participation and camaraderie from the locals who frequent the bar.

The citizens opposing the company

The citizens opposing the company

This dichotomy between “the people” and the company is one which tends to be absent from major Hollywood releases, so to see it in this film was a refreshing social commentary that is often too just not present. One problem with the way it plays out in this film, however, is how the events unfold in the latter part of the film where it is revealed that the environmental presence was actually set up by the company to discredit any opposition to their efforts. It is revealed that many of the claims by the environmentalist were fabricated, and the company was able to get evidence of this to discredit him. The night before a major vote is to take place, Damon’s character learns that he was being fooled by the company into believing this as well and has a change of heart. At this major vote the next day, he reveals to the people of the town that the environmentalist was actually working for his company, and we are left to assume that the town in turn rejected the proposal for the company to being operating in the town.

A problem with this turn of events is that the agency of the people of this town was reduced to the will and drive of different people in the company. This leads the conflict to be resolved by the “guilty feeling” and moral turn by one of the main drivers of the company’s profits. While depicting this “switching sides” so to speak is not in and of itself problematic, what is troubling is how the resolution of the conflict relied solely on his moral compass: not on the residents of the town themselves who had been so active throughout the film. They had been empowered every step of the way in rejecting the company, with a strong populist feeling of “us vs them” that had guided their clear move away from the company’s line. Yet once we discover that they were all being tricked (the company was “playing both sides” as the fake environmentalist had said), all of that empowerment was assumed to have just given in to the company’s ability to control the narrative. That’s not to say that when “both sides are being played” that people don’t get tricked, and that the ruling class doesn’t often get what it wants: but the endogenous, or homegrown opposition to the company ceased to be a factory in the conflict resolution of this film. This is the issue that should have been further explored.

The overall structure of the film is not itself challenged by this resolution, but it does take away from the overall progressive tone of the film. But in general the film deals with many important issues beyond fracking, namely the future of small towns where factory jobs and investment continue to leave and more and more they rely on deals with companies like the one depicted in this film.

Dear Mandela (2011)

Directors: Dara Kell, Christopher Nizza

Dear Mandela is a documentary about the struggle for housing in post-apartheid South Africa. It follows a community organization called Abahlali BaseMjondolo (which means “people of the shacks”) in its fight for housing rights (which are supposed to be guaranteed in the constitution of South Africa). In the film, the ANC is portrayed as having “fallen from grace” to an extent in that they have failed to deliver in their promise to bring equality after apartheid.

The structure of the documentary is reminiscent of films like Harlan County, USA that follow a community through a significant amount of time during a specific struggle. In this case, Abahlali BaseMjondolo decides to take the fight for housing to a constitutional court, arguing that the demolition of shacks is unconstitutional considering that they are not being provided with adequate alternatives. They find that the ruling ANC is willing to use violence and coercion to prevent its victory in the courts, and there is even a moment when ANC supporters come and harass them while they’re outside of the courtroom. This exposes a serious contradiction in post-apartheid South Africa, as the ANC continues to command much respect for its role in bringing about the end of the apartheid regime. For example, one of the activists is in the midst of a community meeting and denounces all political parties, and when he denounced the ANC: the room grew silent. This contradiction in South Africa continues to be a significant political question as related to recent events like the massacre of 34 miners this year and the complex relationship between the ANC and the mining unions.

This difficult fight against the state in the courts is an example of what many have called the “new apartheid” or “economic apartheid” in South Africa. While the formal racist rule came to an end with the victory of the ANC, class inequality continues. This film sharply highlights this inequality, showing that many of the folks who live in these shacks are workers who just cannot afford to live in the cities in which they work.

Abahlali BaseMjondolo wins their court battle, which was an important victory. This victory was an important step in achieving real housing rights for South Africans, although there is still a long road ahead, as this documentary points out through its optimistic message.

At the screening of the film I attended (that was put on by the Center for Place Culture and Politics), the film makers were encouraging people to set up screenings of the film to help promote the film itself and raise awareness of the struggle in South Africa. http://dearmandela.com/

​Children of Men​ (2006)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Children of Men is a science fiction film that paints a picture of a “hopeless future.” Like most dystopian fiction, the “purpose” of the film is social commentary. The premise of the film is that women have en masse become infertile and as a result, much of the world has “devolved” into chaos and war except for the United Kingdom which is supposedly the “only remaining” stable civilized society. This stable civil society is exposed throughout the film to be based on repression and organized violence against the victims of the worldwide troubles which leads the viewer to believe that this so called stable society is living in a state of denial.

Of course the concept of a chaotic violent world doesn’t require science fiction to showcase, yet as with most science fiction: painting it as an alternate reality or possible future to an extent gives room for commentary. So we see the British military kettling people from around the world, who have moved to the UK to find refuge from the tumult of their place of origin, into cages and camps while sending them off to a ghetto that is separated from the rest of society. We are lead to believe that this is a “possible world.” If the film had taken place in contemporary Afghanistan or Iraq, showing the same actions, the response to the film would be much different, even though the film itself is inspired directly by those very real events. In an interview, Cuarón says that “[e]verything has to have a reference to the state of our times,” which demonstrates the role that the style and particular depiction of this future plays.

There are many social issues dealt with the film, and the infertility question ends up to an extent merely being a plot device to explore these issues. For example, one of the main characters (who is the first pregnant woman in over a decade) is a refugee named Kee and is being escorted by a resistance group called the “fishers” who want to use her pregnancy as part of the resistance to the British state. While the theme of gender seems to be de-emphasized, this usage of the main character who is a woman to simply achieve the aims of political groups could be seen as an exposing the gendered nature of both oppression and resistance (one need not look far for feminist critiques of the Left). These issues playing the primary role in the film shows that the film is not about the future per sey, but rather our current social situation. For example, the director himself said that while making the film, they “didn’t want [the audience] to be distracted by the future. We didn’t want to transport the audience into another reality.”

This sense of not wanting the audience to be distracted by the future contrasts the film with a film like Blade Runner which is the sort of dystopia that focuses on the affects of technology on social change directly. Cuarón actually even said that Children of Men was “the anti-Blade Runner” in terms of the mise en scene (or art and visual standards of the film). This different take on the future offers contrasting visions of how social commentary and science fiction can play out, and Children of Men‘s attempt proves quite successful both politically and in terms of film making. It demonstrates the potential that science fiction has as a tool for exposing social relations of today and what film makers who understand this are capable of doing.