Category Archives: Let the Fire Burn

A film about childhood

Michael Moses Ward, age 13.

Michael Moses Ward, age 13.

When I think about it, Let the Fire Burn has always been about childhood. I was an eleven-year-old growing up in Philadelphia when the fire happened.

Childhood—for those of us lucky enough to have one—is really all about your parents sheltering you and protecting you. In order to better protect you, they tell a little white lie. The nature of that lie is that it’s all going to be okay, that the world is a fair place, that if you do good and play by the rules, everything will turn out alright.

So, childhood has an expiration date. There is a point in everyone’s life—often a traumatic event—when the bubble created by that white lie bursts. There is a moment when we all realize the harsh truth: the world is not a fair place.

At eleven, the events of May 13, 1985, scared me. It was impossible to avoid the images on TV, the smoke on the skyline, the tension everywhere. As a child, I was unprepared with the ready-made frames that adults use to help explain and thus emotionally negotiate public tragedies—and this was tragedy, destruction, and injustice on an epic scale. It happened in the place where I lived, and it was perpetrated on children. As a child, I could not comfortably put this event in a box and label it as an example of racism, or police brutality, or even war. In my childhood bubble, I did not yet have a context for these things. However, I knew intrinsically that the children were not to blame and that a fundamental injustice had occurred.

The world is not a fair place.

I think that art is all about making something out of the things that really bother us, frighten us, upset us, make us mad, make us sad…. Rationally, we know that we cannot fix these things. A movie is not going to fundamentally change the nature of reality. But art is not rational. We have an overwhelming need to understand. So we tell stories, paint pictures, and make films to digest, to grapple, and to remember.

A film cannot bring justice to the deaths of eleven people, but an additional injustice is done when this history goes unremembered. This is too powerful and important a story to be forgotten.

* * *

In memory of Michael Moses Ward 1971–2013.

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Hot Docs: The Pitch

The reason I got to go to Hot Docs in the first place was to pitch in the Hot Docs Forum.

Basil Tsiokos summed up the event better than I could for IndieWire (including a very flattering pre-review of LET THE FIRE BURN – Thank You Basil, glad I got a chance to meet you on our way out of town).

A few thoughts on the pitching at the Forum:

1. It is a pretty intense environment. This is really the big stage. I had to follow a pitch of a filmmaker who covered a subject for 12 years, and the producer of BEING ELMO, pitching a project that has already won best pitch awards. Intimated much?

2. It is SO important to have an experienced team. I could not have navigated this event nearly so well without backing from my EP Andrew Herwitz and Sundance representative Rahdi Taylor.  Having Sundance on your side does not suck at all, especially if you are pitching a non-traditional approach.

3. I decided to go a little outside the box with my pitch, by standing up (no one else did this) and by addressing the audience directly and asking for a response. I felt that if these things were effective, I would stand out, but that they could also fall flat, or (worse) I could come off as arrogant. In the end, I was very pleased with how it worked out. More than a dozen people came up to me and commented just that I stood up. Really? Such a small thing makes such a big difference? Yes!

4. All this stuff adds up. Regardless of the details, there is something about just being in the room consistently with this small community. Regardless of who you talk to or what the results are, it is important to get your name and work out there and do it consistently.

It was a pretty big thrill to step onto the big stage and I’m pleased that the project is being so well-received.

Me with Executive Prodcuer Andrew Herwitz of The FIlm Sales Company, right after the pitch.

The three Sundance Institute teams pitching at the Forum. The other films are THESE BIRDS WALK, a beautifully shot film "about Pakistani males, but with no guns" and LEONE STARS, a story about an amputee soccer team that is not what you expect. Centered with the big smile is Rahdi Taylor, our SDF rep on the scene. She is a dedicated community-builder and a great partner to have.

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Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant and HotDocs Forum Announcement for LET THE FIRE BURN

Building on last year’s good news for LET THE FIRE BURN, this month, two big announcements have me pretty excited. We’ve been awarded one of two 2012 Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grants,  and will be pitching at HotDocs Forum.

I should probably be preparing my pitch or studying buyer profiles or something, but instead I just keep watching this video over and over. I just can’t enough of it.

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LET THE FIRE BURN Has Breakthrough Year Capped by Grant from Sundance

Most of you who know me know that LET THE FIRE BURN is the independent documentary about the 1985 MOVE conflict and fire that I have been working on pretty much forever.

MOVE members flee their "headquaters" in 1978.

MOVE members flee their "headquarters" in 1978. (photo: Sam Psoras, Philadelphia Inquire)

During the past year or so, I have finally progressed beyond a nascent project just hinting at the potential for a film to an advanced work-in-progress that is starting to gain momentum and recognition.

Recent progress includes:

  • Participation in Independent Film Week 2010, the oldest forum for emerging independent films and filmmakers.
  • Andrew Herwitz, president of The Film Sales Company, joining the project as sales agent and executive producer.  Andrew has been instrumental in some of the most successful independent documentary releases of all time.
  • In collaboration with Dorothy Gilliam, director of SMPA’s Prime Media Movers program, hosting a  pre-screening with National Association of Black Journalists members who covered the tragedy at the time, including former Philadelphia Inquirer journalists Vanessa Williams and Elmer Smith, NABJ founder Paul Delaney, former Washington Post journalists Richard Prince and Bill Raspberry, and George Curry, who covered it for the Chicago Tribune.
  • The award of a $30,000 grant from the Sundance Documentary Fund. This means not only much-needed funds to continue work but also entry into an exclusive collaborative peer group and that includes numerous opportunities for workshopping, mentoring, and fellowship.

Wow. It’s enough to make one’s head spin.

Here is SMPA’s write-up and our new IMDb page (not much there yet, it but makes me happy to see it). i’ll be getting a dedicated website up soon, but if you want to get updates, you can sign up here on the film page of this site.

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