Highlights from SLIFF's Second Week

Let the Fire Burn
In the documentary Let the Fire Burn, there's never enough information. Director Jason Osder has pieced together from archival film clips the story of the radical Philadelphia–based urban group MOVE and the 1985 bombing of its West Philadelphia headquarters by city police. The mostly white police force let the buildings burn to the ground, destroying a residential neighborhood and killing six MOVE members and five children, all African American. Using footage from news coverage of the bombing and the public hearing that followed, videos made by MOVE sympathizers and depositions from survivors, Osder conveys the force, anger and passion of the MOVE members' belief in their leader, John Africa, without quite articulating what they believed in. Members say that John Africa taught "absolute truth," and the footage demonstrates that MOVE believed in happiness through simple communal living, without electricity or gas. Cryptic, too, are the answers of city police and officials about the exact choreography of individual incidents, possession of weaponry and decision-making. Osder lets his subjects' guarded speech and furious yet careful word choice convey the ambiguity of the intentions of both police and MOVE members, while highlighting disturbing dynamics of race, brutality and privilege. The opening shots of the film, which are its clearest moment, are pulled from an interview with the one child bombing survivor, Michael Ward. The interviewer asks him if he knows what happens when you lie. Michael pauses, then calmly responds: "People get hurt." — Diana Clarke
Screens Saturday, November 23, at 4 p.m. at Webster University

Running from Crazy
In Barbara Kopple's documentary Running from Crazy, Mariel Hemingway (actress, model, granddaughter of Ernest) does an admirable job of stripping away any romantic notions that Americans may harbor about her family's tragedies. She displays a rare level of honesty about the traumas of her childhood and how they affected her later behavior, for good and ill. Hemingway, who does work for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, may never be done "running from crazy" (her partner, Bobby Williams, reveals himself to be a controlling prick, for one thing), but she's clearly a survivor. Unfortunately, this movie mostly reflects the surface of her personal journey, territory better tilled elsewhere by Oprah Winfrey, one of the film's executive producers. But Kopple doesn't step up. The possible hereditary nature of suicide in general, and of the seven known Hemingway suicides in particular, is lazily poked at; decades of research go unmentioned and unexplored. For the film's most saturated moments and deepest insights she depends heavily on a documentary shot in the 1980s by Mariel's sister Margaux, who committed suicide in 1996. Mariel reportedly gave Kopple 54 hours of footage from that enthralling work, and it seems that something more could come from that than this. — Daphne Howland
Screens Sunday, November 24, at 1 p.m. at Plaza Frontenac

Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution
On a snowy night in late November 1973, Paris was burning, as first-time filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper shows in her rough-hewn, repetitive, yet still lively documentary on the "Battle of Versailles," in which five top French couturiers faced off against an equal number of American ready-to-wear designers at the royal château. Team USA consisted of Halston, Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass and Stephen Burrows, one of the many veterans of the event Draper interviews. Behind mirrored sunglasses, Burrows speaks nonchalantly about the chilly reception the Yanks got; more animated recollections issue forth from the models, several of them African-American, who recall the absence of toilet paper, heat and food. Despite these privations, the New World destroyed the ancien régime. A tacky, creaky, and bloated variety show, the French presentation included pumpkin coaches, waltzes and a mechanical rhino pulling a cart filled with gypsies. The U.S. segment, in the words of model Alva Chinn, favored simplicity: "Beautiful clothes on good-looking people just moving across the stage" to the sounds of Barry White and Al Green. "It was the presence of these African-American models that really animated the stage," notes Harold Koda of the Met's Costume Institute — a sentiment that fashion historian Barbara Summers expresses more memorably: The crowd was "peeing in their seats because these girls were so fabulous." — Melissa Anderson
Screens Saturday, November 23, at 4 p.m. at Plaza Frontenac

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