Jason Osder: The filmmaker who makes pizza
By Caroline Pain
Feb 10, 2015
The filmmaker Jason Osder used an original metaphor during a talk at the Downtown Campus on Friday to explain his goal in making the documentary “Let the Fire Burn.”
“There are several sorts of things people can eat.” Osder explains, “You see, sometimes people eat spinach because they think it will make them healthier, they don’t like the taste of it but they feel like they have to. Spinach would be intellectual movies or documentaries in our example here. On the other hand, there’s candy, reality TV or entertainment. People know that they are not good for them, but they like the taste. I want to make pizza! It’s not bitter, you like the taste of it, and when you are done you have to digest it.”
Osder describes “Let the Fire Burn” as an atypical historical documentary that has some qualities of a morality play. The distinction comes from Osder’s goal, which is to make people look at the present day critically.
The film, which recently won the award for best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival, was shown at Page Hall on Feb. 6, followed by a question-and-answer session with the filmmaker.
“Let The Fire Burn” was released in 2013 and has been viewed by more than 1.3 million people since then. It’s a documentary recounting what happened in Philadelphia in 1983 when the confrontation between the authorities and the black liberation organization MOVE reached a dramatic climax.
On May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia Police decides to rout MOVE out of the neighborhood in which they had established their headquarters. Within a few hours, things escalated when shots were fired. Eventually the police dropped a bomb on the roof of the house, and decided to “let the fire burn,” killing 11 people, including five children. The documentary is centered around the video deposition of 13-year-old Michael Ward, who was the only child to survive.
Osder wanted to have an impact on people, starting by making them aware of what happened. A Philadelphia native, he was 11-years-old when the tragedy happened.
“At that time,” Osder recalls. “I did not have any of these frames adults use to understand events like this one, such as racism or militarization. All I had was fear.”
As he moved away from his hometown to go to college, he was confronted with the fact that very few people knew about what had happened that day. That’s when he decided to start working on this project.
“I think there are two kinds of justice. The first one that concerns the ones who are responsible for what happened and that should make them face the consequences of their acts. This is not the one I am referring to with my documentary. I don’t think films are fit to do that. What I am aiming at is the justice that concerns everyone. People have to know about what happened. This is going to sound like a cliché but you have to know your history in order not to repeat it,” he said.
Watching “Let The Fire Burn,” one thinks that it was almost ready-made because it essentially tells itself, without any narration, only straightforward footage. And yet, Osder spent more than ten years working on this project. The film is entirely made of archived footage that he found, for the most part, in the Temple University of Philadelphia. After a long negotiation process he was allowed to use them.
In the meantime, he had also been doing interviews. However, when he started working with Nels Bangerter, his editor, they decided not to use them, and only rely on archives.
“We gave it a try without the interviews.” Osder said. “In a way, I wanted the audience to be like a kid watching television, getting the story as it happened, in the present tense, without any mediation.”
After the screening, Osder went up on stage to answer questions. A man asked about Michael Ward, one of the two survivors of the fire. Osder’s documentary is built around Ward’s videotaped testimony. Osder explained that he had interviewed him and when it happened he understood that Ward did not want to be reminded of that. Ward died in 2013 at age 41.
“When I heard the news,” Osder said. “It was particularly hard because I felt like I had lost something. How do you mourn someone that you don’t know? I had interviewed him but it wasn’t like knowing him. He was so symbolic, and will be for years to come hopefully.”