Greetings again from the darkness. It’s November 8, 2018 and the film opens with the daily weather report. For the residents of Paradise, California, this will forever be their worst nightmare: ‘Camp Fire’, the deadliest and most destructive fire in the state’s history. The first 9 minutes of film shows harrowing footage captured by dash cam, helmet cam, smart phones, news footage, and drones. As it begins, one resident says, “Honey, there’s stuff falling out of the sky.” Soon after, we hear a firefighter state “we are 100% surrounded by fire”, and as we ride in the car with a frantic family trying to escape, we hear their relief in the “clear skies” they finally glimpse.
This is a National Geographic production and it’s directed by 2-time Oscar winner Ron Howard. Mr. Howard is best known for his popular films like CINDERELLA MAN (2005), APOLLO 13 (1995), and yes, BACKDRAFT (1991). In the past few years, he’s directed documentaries on Luciano Pavarotti and The Beatles, but as best I can tell, REBUILDING PARADISE is his first step into Cinema Verite – letting the moments of reality unfold while capturing it with mostly handheld cameras.
By 11:38 am, the only light in the skies of Paradise is coming from the glow of the massive and intense fire. The aftermath can only be described as total destruction. Paradise is in ashes. We see the desperate attempt by first responders to ensure that all citizens are evacuated, and then we witness the search for bodies. Camp Fire killed 85 people and displaced 50,000 people, including all of Paradise (80 miles north of Sacramento). The challenges included finding shelter for residents, keeping folks out of town while the fire smolders, and figuring out what the next steps might be.
Director Howard structures the film with visits every 3 months, and to make it personal, a handful of folks are selected. These include Woody Culleton, a man who rose from self-professed town drunk to town mayor (now ex-Mayor), Police Officer Matt Gates, School Superintendent Michelle John, and School Psychologist Carly Ingersoll. Each of these people have their own personal struggles due to the fire, but they are also focused on assisting others, and helping the town of Paradise plan for the future.
It’s a full month before residents are allowed back to salvage anything possible from the ashes. At three months, activist Erin Brockovich gives a speech about the possible liability of PG&E and their equipment from 1921, while a logjam of dump trucks is used to clear debris from town. At six months, the high school seniors are given a graduation ceremony they will never forget, and at 9 months, healing and rebuilding is underway. We gain some insight into the struggles with FEMA and city government, and yet mostly what we witness is a community dedicated to remaining a community.
Mr. Howard chooses to end the movie with clips and warnings about global climate change, which may fit in a larger discussion, but here, the most effective segments are moments with folks simply trying to put their lives back together. That’s more powerful than anything else we can witness.
National Geographic is releasing this in Virtual Cinema and Digital on July 31, 2020