It is hard to remember much before our current moment. That is partially because the overbearing reality of COVID-19 has so dominated and altered the day-to-day existence of everyone’s waking life that the concerns of anything before that seems like a distant memory. The last four months have felt more like four lifetimes.
But there was a time before COVID. And more depressingly, there were crises back then too. Horrific ones that, while more localized than a global pandemic, impacted the lives of people just as tragically. Case in point, on November 8, 2018, a wildfire that would come to be known as the Camp Fire decimated over 150,000 acres of land, claimed 85 lives and ultimately caused $16.5 billion worth of destruction. A new documentary from prolific filmmaker Ron Howard, Rebuilding Paradise, covers the aftermath of the fire for one year. It offers a devastating portrait of the long-term impact a disaster like this can have on both individuals and the local community.
The opening 10 minutes of Rebuilding Paradise pieces together archival footage of people in the midst of the Camp Fire, and is among the most Apocalyptic real-world images ever set to film. You are set in the driver’s seat of a car barreling down roads that are surrounded by fires on all sides. At one point, the local hospital (which will eventually be destroyed by the fire) is being evacuated. When a doctor reporting for work asks a police officer, “Are we going to die?”, she is offered no words of comfort. He simply doesn’t know in that moment if they will or not.
After that first ten minutes, the slow and painful process of rebuilding begins. People rush home to discover all their possessions are gone. School buildings, also gone. Large swaths of trees have been rendered to little more than ash. Hundreds of cars left behind as burned out husks. An entire community is essentially wiped out over a single night. As the viewer meets several members of this community, those who remain must make sense of the devastation. Through their stories, the viewer is given a ground-level vision of the weight of this disaster.
We meet Woody Culleton, who tells the story of how Paradise helped him transform from a self-proclaimed “town drunk” to a community activist and former mayor. We meet Matt Gates, a police officer who struggles with giving his community some sense of normalcy while also attempting to maintain his own home-life amid the demands of his job after the fire. And we meet Michelle John, superintendent of the Paradise schools who struggles to find the balance between what is best for her students and what is actually possible given impossible circumstances. At one point, John is meeting with a young student who says that she wants to go back to her school; John has to inform her that her school is actually gone. These are just some of the Paradise residents we meet, and each is given space to be honest about their pain, trauma and anger surrounding and following the fire.
The structure of the documentary is paced where Howard’s film crew returned to Paradise every three months or so to see both how the community has developed, as well as how the individuals have copes. And what becomes clear through the process of these returns is that these people won’t be the same. They persevere, and make gestures towards returning to their lives before the fire. Yet the impact of this event has permanently haunted Paradise. Even those who decide to stay, to rebuild their homes, will always live under the shadow that this could very happen again. They now know all too well just how quickly everything can fall apart.
Peppered throughout the film is also the ongoing outcry against energy company PG&E, who eventually was found responsible for starting the fire due to equipment that was in need of updating. When they proceed to provide a fix to ensure this never happens again, it becomes clear the citizens and victims of their malfeasance will be carrying the bill for the renovation of their power grid. The film also covers the ecological choices, both current and in the long history of California, that led to conditions that would allow for a wildfire this catastrophic to occur. And perhaps most infuriating, the film documents the undue burden placed upon the victims of the fire to clear their land of fire-based debris before they would be eligible for FEMA funds necessary to rebuild their homes.
But Howard mostly places these as secondary to the ultimate human toll that this disaster took on people’s lives; one segment shows the mass funeral held for the 85 lives lost in the fire, and we witness the pain it has inflicted on those that have survived as well. Any moment of seeming peace, of seeming reprieve, is punctuated by another long-term impact or cost. Throughout, individuals interviewed talk about how it is time to move on; the look in their eyes makes it clear that is not really possible. The actual rebuilding of Paradise is recognizing that something new must be built, and what was once loved is truly gone.
The final moments of the film depict the students of Paradise High School running a fundraiser for the victims of the severe tornadoes in Beauregard, Alabama. Howard then cuts to footage of that catastrophe, then cuts to another, and another, and another. For every Paradise, CA, there are that many more homes out there that has been hit by similar ecological disasters. The clear (if not blatantly stated) punctuation is that our whole planet is in danger of similar and sudden destruction if care is not taken. By foregrounding and focusing on the impact, Howard makes an impassioned plea to try to make changes to keep another Camp Fire from occurring, so that devastation and fear won’t be the rule everywhere. The cost is simply too high, not in terms of money but in terms of human life, to not do anything.
It may be too late for Paradise to not be permanently scarred. But Howard through the film is begging that we not simply let this pass out of our memory, feeling safe at a distance. This is a concern for everywhere on our planet in the face of global climate change, and the film shows the grounded, horrifying reality if nothing continues to be done. It is an incredibly heart-wrenching, but ultimately necessary watch.
Rebuilding Paradise premiered through virtual cinemas on Friday, July 31st. Cinapse recommends supporting local theaters, like the Violet Crown in Austin, where “tickets” can be purchased for short-term streaming availability.