Home Entertainment production ‘Philly on fire,’ ‘Bella!’ tie for the Library of Congress prize

‘Philly on fire,’ ‘Bella!’ tie for the Library of Congress prize

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LOS ANGELES — Documentaries about feminist leader and politician Bella Abzug and a deadly 1985 Philadelphia police bombing are the winners of this year’s Library of Congress Film Prize.

“Bella! and “Philly on Fire” were selected by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and veteran documentarian Ken Burns, the latter among those for whom the award is named. This is the first time that two films have been shortlisted for the award, which is in its fourth year.

“They were both spectacular,” Burns said in an interview. He and Hayden, who were tasked with making the final decision after the submissions were sorted through “a few layers” of judges, realized they faced an impossible decision.

“We couldn’t choose one and not the other,” Burns said. Each of the winners announced Tuesday for the Lavine-Ken Burns Prize for Film from the Library of Congress will receive the full $200,000 grant for use in final production and eventual distribution.

“Bella! is directed by Jeff L. Lieberman (“The Amazing Nina Simone”) and chronicles Abzug’s pioneering election to the House of Representatives in 1970 and her fight for women’s equality, civil rights, and LGBTQ causes. Burns calls it “one of the most energetic and wonderful films”.

“I’m old enough to have followed Bella Abzug for most of her career, and I’ve learned so much about it,” he said.

“Philly on Fire,” directed by Ross Hockrow and Tommy Walker (“Kaepernick & America”), examines the Philadelphia police attack on the headquarters of a black liberation group, MOVE. Eleven people died, including five children, and around 60 neighborhood houses were destroyed.

It’s an “urgent and important and timeless film, and so meticulously made and so balanced,” Burns said. “An event like this could easily be treated superficially and used as some kind of political or polemical cudgel to beat the public. And it doesn’t do that. This makes the public a kind of equal partner in its discovery.

The Library of Congress Prize was created to support documentaries using original research and archival material to “bring American history to life.”

Grants of $25,000 will go to four finalists: “Cannabis Buyers Club,” directed by Kip Andersen and Chris O’Connell; “Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against the Native American Mascot,” directed by Aviva Kempner and Ben West; “Raymond Lewis: LA Legend,” directed by Ryan Polomski with co-director Dean Prator; “Virgil Thomson: Creating the American Sound”, directed by John Paulson.

The award is funded by Jeannie and Jonathan Lavine through their non-profit Crimson Lion Foundation and provided to The society of the best angels, a non-profit organization raising funds for Burns’ work and to support future documentarians.

Burns’ extensive body of Emmy-winning work as a producer and director includes ‘The Civil War’, ‘Benjamin Franklin’, ‘Jackie Robinson’, ‘Country Music’, ‘The Vietnam War’ and the recent ‘The US and the Holocaust.”