bonnie lenore kyburz, Northern Illinois University
(Published December 4, 2018)
Man on Fire (2017) isn’t an easy film to watch. Writing about Man on Fire wants all of me. This shouldn’t be a problem. Writing about intense documentaries is something I teach routinely. I have a method. Following some initial discussion and invention, the method involves, first, writing what the film is and what it does, a simple chronology. This part of the process forecloses questions regarding how the film tells its story because that affectively-charged analytical work requires a baseline. The chronology provides the baseline, a way of managing affects in order to write clearly and cohesively when confronting the complexity of a film’s content. So, to begin, my method invites me to describe what happens in the film, and I’m immediately confronted with the problem of seeking to separate summary from analysis, content from the rhetorical a/effects that create transducive scrims within the writerly affectsphere, content’s factual intensities shimmering into (in this case) terrible view again and again. So, to begin, the writing wants me to focus on the film itself as a way of inviting you to know its content somewhat prior to experiencing its affective force (assuming you watch it and even if you don’t). This method wants the impossible, for who gets very far beyond the title, Man on Fire without a spine-straightening? I didn’t. I still don’t. So, to begin, I’m challenged in ways that require focus, affective openness (even, obviously, to the horrific), and trust in my method.
Writing that introduction productively managed my traumatic response to Man on Fire. So, to begin, the basic details. But see I’m also struggling with knowledge of current U.S. - Mexico border atrocities, many of which are taking place in makeshift concentration camps located in Texas. Thus, while I know better, it’s presently difficult to fight the urge to see Texas as wholly racist, a difficulty somewhat impressively undertaken by Director Joel Fendelman in the multiple award-winning short film Man on Fire. Produced by rhetorical scholar of political activism James Chase Sanchez, Fendelman’s short offers a carefully nuanced approach to telling the story of a 79 year old white man, the preacher Charles Moore. In June, 2014, Moore self-immolated in a Texas Dollar General Store parking lot. Nearby, safe from the flames, a carefully articulated suicide note was taped to the transparent surface of his vehicle’s windshield.
The note is always critical. As a rhetorical tool, it wants to make sense of the intensities surrounding suicide. The note materializes a confluence of hopes, fears, and desires for understanding. But Moore had lived with knowledge of the limitations of words in light of deeply rooted, small town racism. Thus, though he had enshrined his laments in the form of a note, Moore had meticulously planned a far more consuming rhetorical method for transcending linguistic limitations. Perhaps Moore had hoped he’d never need to go to such extremes. I doubt he ever seriously considered not following though on his plan, though it’s often tempting to imagine, and the film does offer one such glimmer of this retroactive hope. The note left behind fragments of affective intensity Moore had experienced in his life as a preacher living with the disappointment of cultural stagnation and seeming memory loss regarding racial tensions and the town’s virulently racist past. The note wanted to mark what frequently evaded capture; the racism in Grand Saline is throughout the film captured in interview footage through whispy, dismissive reveries, voices willing only to articulate a form of lore-rather-than-history, but a pervasive lore that soaks the town, and marks the nature of its being both within and beyond its carefully nuanced borders. Moore lit himself on fire to protest legendary scenes of racism in the small town of Grand Saline, Texas.
Self-immolation as a form of protest has a complicated history, though Man on Fire devotes little-to-no time on its explication. Instead, the film focuses upon the uptake of Moore’s protest act. As is tragically the case — white male shooters are “crazy” while ethnically non-white shooters are “terrorists” — the radical nature of self-immolation by fire may have rendered the protest message vulnerable to readings that quickly and insistently landed on “crazy.” Man on Fire takes this reading as a tacit starting point for its inquiry. Interviews with Grand Saline townspeople — friends, former classmates, town leaders, and eye witnesses — reveal a seemingly shared inability to comprehend Moore’s purpose. Few seemed equipped to see a clear line of reasoning from the flames to the racist acts Moore wanted to highlight and denounce; few seemed willing to admit to Grand Saline’s racist history at all.
Perhaps it is because of the voices of seeming denial or cautious skepticism that I am reluctant to write this summary by describing what people say about Moore’s suicide. I’m frustrated that the intensity of Moore’s message is transparently unmatched by the townspeople’s placid stoicism. Thankfully, the affordances of documentary as a genre offer a more gratifying method. Fendelman’s directorial choices insist that audiences experience Moore’s protest on its own terms. Man on Fire opens with a somber, slowly evolving musical track that swells just as the screen is illuminated by text from the note:
This decision to sacrifice myself was not impulsive: I have struggled all my life with what it means to take Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s insistence that “Christ calls a person to die” seriously. — Rev. Charles Moore (Man on Fire)
The text dissolves. The screen fills with an artfully tight shot of a bepsectacled face. The shot is built around the spectacle(s). The shot exists to frame a vision of an impossible re-enactment of Moore’s suicide. The eyes blink in slow-motion. One lens reflects activity — hands unscrewing the cap of the familiar red gas can that’s soon lifted up and up. Blink. The clear liquid soon flows down across the calm, steady brow. How does it not sting the eyes? …
A phone rings.
"Um, this is Angi at the Dollar General, …”
“In what city”
“Grand Saline, and a man’s on fire out in the parking lot.”
"The man is on fire?
“Yes a man just [louder] set himself on figh-yer.” (Man on Fire)
And so the film begins to incorporate the voices of the storytellers Moore left behind. The 911 audio recording introduces us to Moore’s suicide. The breathy voice of Angi describes the scene before her with a jumpy anxiety that captures a sense of urgency. Later, in interview footage, she is calm. The camera pans through an alley that gives way to what appears to be the town’s main drag as her voiceover tries to recall the scene in a way that makes sense of it. She says she’d seen him pacing and thought it was weird and decided that because he was,
“So far out, I was like, maybe he’s like picking weeds or something.” (Man on Fire)
The voices of two elderly gentlemen take up the narration, accepting the effort to understand what Moore has so clearly articulated in the note. One remembers him from school, reluctant to,
“Say anything about the man … I don’t know, people just … some time they get off, over in the left field.” (Man on Fire)
The shot pans along train tracks as the sun is setting. A younger, middle-aged, tattooed man:
“I had seen the car that I’d seen him walk from, and there was a high school diploma, and then a note. It said something about he was tired of seein’ the blacks treated like they was, through the years, in Grand Saline, Texas.” (Man on Fire)
Angi again, her voice agitated, seems unable to reconcile,
“Wait .. Why suicide? Why was that … being a minister, why was that [louder, annunciating agitatedly] the best opt-shun?” (Man on Fire)
An active flame graphic is overlaid onto the face of the bespectacled man. The title emerges. Man on Fire.
This opening sequence sets up all of the curiosities and tensions uptaken in the film’s short timeline. Fendelman carefully forecasts the slim range of affects on display throughout the film, as the interviewees recall Moore, consider his protest, and seem to resist, or reject, and anyhow, … they certainly question its validity. The tone is steady and sure, and while I have little doubt that the interviewees are faithfully telling their stories with what feels like the truth, the missing outrage is palpable. The film moves along, unwavering in its pace … did Moore need to self-immolate? Was Grand Saline really all that racist? The questions are raised, and the film moves toward its conclusion with brilliantly nonchalant, dream-like footage of a Grand Saline High School Homecoming event I can’t describe except to tell you that the final minute of the film — featuring this footage — is breathtaking. I lost my breath in the placid, silent rage, in the collective ongoingness of daily life, and in the folksy proclamations comparing Moore to Jesus. Jesus.
The broad expanse of evening sky. The people accumulating to gather, to celebrate community, to meet in agreement.
“I don’t think it’s changed anything around here, really, because, you know, people still carry on today like they did before it ever happened, like it’s just another day” (Man on Fire)
The band plays. Flags wave.
“Everybody has their own inward self-belief about something, and I think that he had let all of this myth and legend get in the way of his life.” (Man on Fire)