On the 8th November 2018, a wildfire broke out in California that would prove to be the deadliest in the state’s history. Known as the Camp Fire, the blaze covered over 150,000 acres and completely decimated the city of Paradise claiming the lives of 85 residents, displacing a further 50,000, and destroying 95% of local structures in the process. In his latest offering, director Ron Howard follows the survivors of the Camp Fire over the course of a year as they attempt to rebuild and heal in the wake of a terrible tragedy.
Rebuilding Paradise is, at its core, a film about community and hope. Feelings which, from the film’s opening, are difficult to imagine. Howard uses on the ground footage recorded by firefighter body cameras, dash cams and mobile phones to depict the conditions at the heart of the inferno. Watching as firefighters attempt to hold back the flames while residents flee, wondering out loud whether they are going to die, is bone-chilling and makes for difficult viewing. Like the residents, it’s hard to imagine anyone bouncing back from something like that.
However, it is what follows that proves the most heartbreaking: stories and experiences of townspeople that returned to find nothing left of their homes of previous lives that were not depicted on the news. Many chose not to return, while those that did faced adversity at every turn; from FEMA bureaucracy to a negligent power company -PG&E- responsible for the blaze, but who initially refused to accept any responsibility.
While these are important factors, Rebuilding Paradise isn’t about accusations or investigations. Rather, Howard focuses on the human element, the countless residents affected by the fire; including former mayor Steve ‘Woody’ Culleton, Michelle John, the school superintendent as she tries to ensure that the children affected can continue their education, Carly Jean Ingersoll, a school psychologist trying to provide support for the teenagers under her care while balancing her own trauma from the fire, and a number of the families displaced by the tragedy. Their stories are moving, their wounds raw; but they endure, and Howard excellently tracks their healing processes.
Seeing the residents rally together and support one another is a testament to the community spirit that was prevalent throughout Paradise prior to the fire, and arguably only grew stronger in the wake of it. The attempts to inject some normality to their lives, by still holding their annual parades, or ensuring the high school graduation goes ahead is paramount, despite the spectre of the fire lurking all around them in the burned-down buildings and charred trees. These moments are jarring juxtapositions, but it’s a testament to human kindness and hardiness that the residents continue. While Howard’s film-making is not groundbreaking, it captures all of this intimately and perfectly.
Rebuilding Paradise is a powerful tribute to a small community that, in the wake of horrendous circumstances, came together to endure and survive. As Howard closes out the documentary with footage of natural disasters from around the world that have occurred in the last two years, it’s also a pertinent reminder about the impact humanity is having on the environment. Especially in the wake of the bushfires that wracked Australia earlier this year.