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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with LET THE FIRE BURN and AFTER TILLER!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

Sometimes the proper amount of rage can be generated by a documentary by simply retelling the story as it happened—not re-enactments, no modern interviews with the participants, no revisiting the scene of the events decades later. First-time feature director Jason Osder's LET THE FIRE BURN is an incredible documentary about the events leading up to and including May 13, 1985, when strife between the city of Philadelphia (particularly its police department) and the controversial black power group/cult MOVE exploded in the streets, specifically when the police dropped explosives on the fortified rooftop of the MOVE-occupied rowhouse, starting a fire that ultimately destroyed 61 homes and killed most of the people in that house—11 in total, including five kids.

But the film doesn't simply retell this horrific story—which included the kicker that the mayor and others at the time made the collective decision to just "let the fire burn" and end their problem with MOVE once and for all. Not long after the incident a public hearing was launched that brought together the participants walk step by step through the day and answer for what they had done. Director Osder uses the hearing as his outline for additional footage shot live at the time, as well as some police and privately shot footage and photographs marking the passage of this day. In other words, the filmmaker has pieced together a genuine found-footage film to reveal details of not only that day, but another incident a couple of months earlier where the police and MOVE came into conflict the first time, resulting in a police officer being shot dead.

Was the May 1985 retaliation for that? Did police shoot or threaten to shoot MOVE members as they attempted to get out of the burning house? Was this simply an aggressive act of racism? None of these questions is answered definitively, but the clues are there and piecing things together isn't difficult. LET THE FIRE BURN is an authentically structured work whose only modern commentary are a few title cards between segments that only give historical information. It's an impressive piece of journalism with plenty of built-in drama and tragedy to keep audiences angry and mournful. This is not a film you will soon forget.

With a cool distance from its subject matter, just enough so that it shows more than it tells, AFTER TILLER (from directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson) takes us into the offices of the four remaining American doctors who openly provide late-term (or third-trimester) abortions. I say "remaining," because in May 2009, Dr. George Tiller was gunned down in Kansas by a man who said in court he believed he had completed his holy mission when he assassinated Tiller. The documentary interviews its four subjects and also shows them at work, both as counselors to women or couples making probably the toughest choice in their life and as doctors performing this procedure, which involves terminating the fetus and delivering it. While the film does not get graphic in any way, the descriptions of the procedures may be enough to scare some people away.

Without providing narration, the film simply observes. I was fascinated with how each of the four doctors views what it is they do. They all tend to agree that they're doing important work, especially when it's discovered that the child has a disease or condition that will result in it dying upon birth or shortly thereafter, when the mother's life is at risk, or when the woman has been raped. But one woman simply put off the decision so late that one counselor at the clinic is considering turning her away because the patient is so unsure. Hearing these stories is heartbreaking and opens up a vulnerability in both patients and doctors that is bordering on uncomfortable.

The film also shows us those who consider what these particular doctors do to be the worst kind of murder, who come out in force when one doctor decides to open a new clinic in Maryland. To drive the doctor out, the anti-abortion group's members picket the school where the office landlord's kids go to school. It's about the lowest things I've ever seen, but the landlord's father also performed abortions, and he is not so easily moved.

I'll admit to being somewhat shocked at how at least one of the doctors seemed to constantly struggle with what she does. But, as she says, in the end she relies on the women in her care to make the ultimate decision. The heart and soul of this film is these doctors, and you see them really doing great work in the pre-procedure therapy sessions, where they really go through options with these women. But they never forget that they will live every day they have this job with a target on their backs.

AFTER TILLER is a moving, eye-opening, smart, sensitive film that attempts to open our eyes to perhaps the most demonized profession in America. Whether you think they're brave or foolish, there's little doubt that this film will move you and make you consider a way of living you probably never thought you'd want to know about, but you should.

-- Steve Prokopy
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