Professor’s documentary captures forgotten Philadelphia riots

Media Credit: Delaney Walsh | Photo Editor

Professor Jason Osder sits in his office in front of his video editing setup. Osder's documentary on the Philadelphia race riots will be distributed nationally this fall.

Jason Osder’s documentary, “Let the Fire Burn,” opens with a shot of 13-year-old boy – one of two survivors of a 1985 bombing that left a Philadelphia neighborhood smoldering and nearly lifeless.

Osder, whose home was just miles away from the attack, said that clip inspired him to start creating his documentary more than a decade later. It’s a powerful part of the 90-minute film that has already received a variety of accolades and will debut Tuesday at the West End Cinema.

“I knew that would be the very first scene in the film,” said Osder, a professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs. He has spent about 10 years working on the film. “It went through a billion edits, but that scene stayed true.”

Osder was 11 years old when the city was embroiled in a police standoff with the black liberation group MOVE. Officers deployed two pounds of explosives into a city housing complex. Eleven people died – including five children.

“You don’t have the frame that an adult has, of race or police brutality, so [my first thought] was to the kids, and how all the authorities that were supposed to be protecting them failed,” he said.

It was a defining moment for him, he said, similar to the way others remembered the assassination of John F. Kennedy or 9/11.

After he completed his master’s degree at the University of Florida, he landed a teaching gig at GW, and continued the 10-year process of collecting photographs and video footage from local newspapers and city records to tell the story.

After years of work, the film appeared at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where it won an award for Best Editing and was nominated for Best Documentary Film. Osder also earned an honorable mention for Best New Director.

Unlike many documentaries, which feature voice-over narration, “Let the Fire Burn” relies solely on archival footage and news reports. GW also helped produce the film, and the University’s legal arm helped secure the rights to that footage.

The film’s editor, Nels Bangerter, said the structure of the film allows audiences to draw their own conclusions.

“What’s unique about setting this film in 1985 and only in 1985 is that it encourages audiences to make connections, and Travyon Martin, the Austin Grant shootings, they hadn’t happened when we started thinking about the film, it just keeps coming up,” Bangerter said.

Mike Shanahan, who co-taught a multimedia reporting class with Osder until this year, helped connect the director with his cousin, a retired FBI agent who investigated the bombings in Philadelphia.

He praised Osder’s documentary as the first major piece to give an in-depth look at the attacks.

“It captured a cultural dilemma in American society in a way that no one else had done,” Shanahan said.

The film’s early success has also followed Osder to the classroom.

Gabe Felder, a senior who took Osder’s digital media production class last fall, got an early look at the film. He said he was wowed by the clips, which he said also gave the professor “a sense of credibility” in the field.

“You tend to think, ‘Those who can’t do, teach,’ but when you see something this tangible, you can watch it, you can see their own skill and you certainly gain a little bit of respect you didn’t have beforehand,” Felder said.

The West End Cinema will hold a special screening of the film Sept. 10, with SMPA director Frank Sesno moderating a question-and-answer session after the screening. The film will open across D.C. in December.

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