Tribeca Film Festival: ‘Let the Fire Burn’ + ‘The Kill Team’

Let the Fire Burn (2013)

Two documentary autopsies of violent tragedies, the first in Philadelphia and the second in Kandahar, show the results of systematic dehumanization.

Let the Fire Burn

Director: Jason Osder
Rated: NR
Studio: Amigo Media
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-04-19 (Tribeca Film Festival)

The Kill Team

Director: Dan Krauss
Cast: Adam Winfield, Jeremy Morlock, Andrew Holmes, Justin Stoner
Rated: NR
Studio: F8 Film Works
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-04-20 (Tribeca Film Festival)

“It was a failure to resolve conflicting lifestyles in a peaceful way.” This was the determination of the Philadelphia Special Investigation Committee in 1986, following the disastrous police siege of the black liberation group MOVE's row house. As this siege involved a shootout and fire that killed 11 people, that description seems an understatement. Jason Osder’s superbly cool-headed documentary on the incident uses the report and other primary material to lay out what happened that day.

The film features no talking heads or newly filmed post-event analysis from experts or participants who might now claim to have known better. Rather, the documentary deploys archival imagery, primarily the Investigation Committee's televised proceedings, where a battery of sober individuals question a roster of frequently dissembling witnesses, a dynamic that highlights their clashing perceptions of events and motives, as well as their ideas about who was to blame for the tragic result.

If Let the Fire Burn suffers from anything, it’s a lack of context. Using only period video, whether drawn from the Committee's hearings or the hours of live TV broadcast footage of the standoff and consequent assault, Osder doesn’t give the audience much background for this conflict. MOVE was a black power group that made waves in the city during the mid-1970s with its radical, urban, communal way of life. All members adopted the surname Africa, following that of their leader, John Africa. But even as they espoused anti-technology, back-to-nature ideals, or adopted a dreadlocked, pseudo-Black Panther appearance, from the outside, it appeared that members were involved in a cult of personality around John Africa.

Neighbors complained about MOVE house activities, the constant, loud protests and the sight of naked and unwashed children (whose swollen bellies evidenced their malnutrition). The group's very existence likely offended many in Philadelphia's police department, renowned to be one of the most violently racist in the country. The film doesn't make clear who was right or wrong during the years-long animosity between MOVE and city officials. Rather, it shows how media treated helped to create that history.

Let the Fire Burn includes footage of an initial flare-up in 1978, when the city tried to drive MOVE out of its first home in Powelton Village, using a water cannon. Gunfire erupted, and while both sides dispute who started it, the confrontation led to a policeman being shot dead. After nine members were charged with the murder, MOVE regrouped at 6221 Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. Their boarded-up and dank-looking row house stood out in the neighborhood. Tensions rose as MOVE did everything from building defensive bunkers on the roof to bellowing abuse at their neighbors via loudspeaker. When the police finally showed up, it was with an army’s worth of weaponry (police fired some 10,000 rounds into the house) and no plan, except, apparently, to make sure no one escaped the house.

Few people escape this film untainted. The MOVE adults are given to speaking in rambling circumlocutions and not quite explaining a worldview with less interest in going back to nature than sparking an apocalyptic confrontation with the authorities. For their part, city and police officials present an image of sheer incompetence and apathy. How else does one explain the decision to drop a satchel charge full of C-4 on top of a house full of children in a densely populated neighborhood and then make no effort to put out the resulting fire? By burying the viewer in the event as it unfolds, the documentary makes the catastrophe feel almost overwhelming.

The closest thing the film has to a hero is the police officer who tried to rescue a child from the burning row house (it’s possible others were driven back into the inferno by police gunfire). For his pains, he had a racial epithet scrawled on his locker and ultimately he left the force. In a situation packed with people determined to abuse and battle against others, he appears a lone sympathetic figure.

Heroes are also rare in Dan Krauss’ bracing documentary, The Kill Team. It takes its name from the sobriquet attached by media to a squad of American infantrymen stationed in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province who were convicted of murdering several civilians for kicks and then threatening a fellow soldier who expressed qualms about it. Krauss’ central character is Adam Winfield, a small and scrappy-looking kid who, when the film starts, is on trial for murder after trying to report what happened. His parents fret by his side, railing at a military that holds nobody above the rank of sergeant accountable for the killings and punishes whistleblowers like their son.

Alongside the pre-trial proceedings, Krauss adds chilling interviews with several of Winfield’s squad members, none of whom expresses the barest scintilla of guilt over what happened, and a slurry of photos and shaky footage shot by those soldiers eager to document their trophies. (That it's a violation of Army standards to take such photos compounds the outrage.) The apparent ringleader -- Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, who transferred into the unit in 2009 and started attracting followers -- is glimpsed only in some still photos or described by his admirers as a kind of uber-soldier who was eager to rack up kills in any way possible.

The justifications come fast and thick. All of the interviewees point to a familiar problem with this type of conflict. Trained as infantrymen to kill any enemy who crosses their path, the soldiers are dropped into a desert where they're exposed daily to IEDs and ambushes. Once the political terms shift in 2009 and 2010, however, these soldiers are expected to pivot to a squishy-seeming, counterinsurgency strategy of winning hearts and minds, a policy for which they had no training. And so, as the interviewees tell it, when an allegedly malevolent figure like Gibbs shows up and starts telling troops how to kill Afghanis and make them look like combatants, he didn’t need much of a justification. Multiple speakers offer variations on the idea, “They’re all savages anyway," painfully echoing testimonies from other conflicts, where occupying troops, frustrated by not having an enemy to fight, take out their bloodlust on whichever civilians happen to be around. During some of these interviews and accompanying footage, The Kill Team seems almost like an autopsy, necessary but sickening to behold.

Krauss hints at larger issues at play here without delving too deeply into them, including the US military's refusal or inability to police itself. Instead, he keeps his film focused on Winfield’s trial and reconstructing how the squad fell under Gibbs’ sway. Baroque details abound, from the necklace of body parts Gibbs fashioned for himself to the hash-smoking that was certainly fuzzing the kill team members' perceptions. “There are no good men left here,” Winfield writes to his father at one point while still in country with the team, uncertain how to stop what he's witnessing. Before long, Winfield was made a participant, a part of the very problem he's identified.

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