”Ballad of Fire” is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. It is made up of several intriguing elements: our fascination with fire, the inefficiency of the Los Angeles Police Department, how easy it is for rational thought to break down in the midst of a crisis, and the dangers of mob rule.
In the summer of 1991, director and narrator Knight tells us, in the small community of Silver Lake in the great state of California, there was a series of fires. All of them were small but potentially disastrous; the first fire burned down the garage behind Knight*s apartment, nearly collapsing on his jeep. Police and fire investigators on the scene said the same thing: some sort of electrical fire. Arson was dismissed out of hat.
Imagine their surprise, just a few hours later, when another nearby area went up in flame. Frantic neighbors put out the blaze, and the fingers started to point. A loony woman who lived nearby and had no alibi was unceremoniously evicted from her residence, but to no avail. A few short nights later, and flames were once again spotted. The landlords of this apartment complex, a Lithuanian couple by the name of Visilius, began to suspect that a man named Algumentus (or Al) Enrekus was behind the fires.
Alga Matches, as he became known by the neighbors, was a recently arrived freedom fighter who had spent ten years in a gulag in the former Soviet Union. Knight shows us pictures of Al, who comes across as a gnome-like ghoul with eyebrows like two giant caterpillars. Frustrated by the lack of response they are getting from the police (and believe me, the LAPD come off as real a******s in the film) and from the local councilman’s office (Jackie Goldberg), the neighbors form a neighborhood watch, which brings out the worst in them.
Knight has a great story to tell here, and he spins his bizarre tale with a great deal of humor and grace. He counters the search for the arsonist with his own fascination with fire as a kid, showing us how he and friend Tony Taylor would creatively experiment with the many ways to set each other on fire (neither one was ever seriously hurt, but I don’t recommend letting smaller, more impressionable children watch). Flaming quotes from Buddha, Saint Hildegard and Johnny Cash are also used to great effect.