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Library of Congress Prize Facing a Tie -‘Philly on Fire’ and ‘Bella!’ Are Winners

This year’s Library of Congress film prize went to documentaries about the feminist leader and politician Bella Abzug and a deadly 1985 Philadelphia police bombing.
Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, and veteran documentarian Ken Burns, for whom the award is named, chose “Bella!” and “Philly on Fire” as the winners. This is the fourth year of the award and the first time that two movies have been chosen.

They couldn’t find the deciding factor

Burns remarked in an interview, “They were both spectacular.” After “a couple layers” of judges narrowed down the submissions, he and Hayden were left with the impossible task of making the final decision. A deciding factor between the two was not possible, as Burns put it. The Library of Congress Lavine-Ken Burns Prize for Film winners were announced on Tuesday, and each will receive a full $200,000 grant to be used toward the completion and distribution of their films.

The groundbreaking Abzug’s election to the House of Representatives in 1970 and her fight for women’s equality, civil rights, and LGBTQ causes are chronicled in “Bella!,” a film directed by Jeff L. Lieberman (“The Amazing Nina Simone”). Burns says it’s “one of the most kinetic and wonderful films.”

Directed by Ross Hockrow and Tommy Walker (“Kaepernick & America”), “Philly on Fire” investigates the police raid on the rowhouse headquarters of the Black liberation group MOVE in Philadelphia. Fifteen people were killed, including five children, and sixty homes were destroyed.

Burns described it as a “urgent and important and timeless film” that he had never seen before. It would be easy to treat such an event superficially and wield it as a political or polemical club to beat the audience with. That’s not what it does, either. It turns the viewers into co-discoverers with the author.

With the goal of “bringing American history to life,” the Library of Congress prize was created to reward documentaries that do just that through the use of primary sources and archival footage.

The finalists receive grants of $25,000

Four documentaries, including “Cannabis Buyers Club” (directed by Kip Andersen and Chris O’Connell) and “Imagining the Indian .The Fight Against Native American Mascoting” (directed by Aviva Kempner and Ben West), “Raymond Lewis: L.A. Legend” (directed by Ryan Polomski and co-director Dean Prator), and “Virgil Thomson: Creating the American Sound” (directed by John Paulson), will each receive $25,000.

The prize is provided to The Better Angels Society, a nonprofit organisation that raises money for Burns’ work and supports future documentarians, by Jeannie and Jonathan Lavine through their nonprofit Crimson Lion Foundation. The Civil War, Benjamin Franklin, Jackie Robinson, Country Music, The Vietnam War, and most recently, “The United States and the Holocaust” are just a few of Burns’ Emmy-winning productions as a director and producer.

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