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 prize is named. It's the first time that two films were chosen 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 submissions were winnowed down by “a couple layers" of judges, realized that they were faced with an impossible decision.
"We couldn't chose one and not the other,” Burns said. Each of the winners announced Tuesday for the Library of Congress Lavine-Ken Burns Prize for Film will receive the full $200,000 grant intended for use in final production and eventual distribution.
“Bella!” is directed by Jeff L. Lieberman ("The Amazing Nina Simone") and chronicles the pioneering Abzug's 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 through most of her career, and I 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 rowhouse headquarters of a Black liberation group, MOVE. Eleven people died, including five children, and some 60 neighborhood homes 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 be easily treated superficially and used as a kind of political or polemical cudgel to beat the audience. And it doesn’t do that. It does makes the audience a kind of equal partner in the discovery of it."
The Library of Congress prize was established 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 Native American Mascoting,” directed by Aviva Kempner and Ben West; “Raymond Lewis: L.A. Legend,” directed by Ryan Polomski with co-director Dean Prator; “Virgil Thomson: Creating the American Sound,” directed by John Paulson.
The prize is funded by Jeannie and Jonathan Lavine through their nonprofit Crimson Lion Foundation and provided to The Better Angels Society, a nonprofit organization raising funds for Burns' work and in support of 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 U.S. and the Holocaust."