I can’t think of a film—documentary or otherwise—with a more horrifying opening few minutes than the Ron Howard-directed documentary Rebuilding Paradise, which begins with mostly cell phone-captured footage of the residents of the mid-size California town of Paradise, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, narrowly escaping wildfires that ultimately destroyed 95 percent of local structures, displaced 50,000 people, and killed 85. The November 2018 event (known by most as the Camp Fire) began when a local, out-of-date transmission line sparked and the resulting fire spread rapidly thanks to a perfect storm of severe drought and severe winds, both caused by climate change.
As dramatic as the opening few minutes of the film are, Howard and his documentary team are more interested in chronicling the slow, often painful resurrection of Paradise to even a fraction of its former glory. Many simply left and never came back—for quite some time thousands of residents were unaccounted for because of this. Others settled into FEMA trailers or stayed with generous families with extra beds and big hearts, with the intention of rebuilding once the city and insurance companies got their acts together. The adversity and red tape was enormous, but the townspeople bonded and rallied and celebrated small victories wherever they could make them happen—the lighting of a small Christmas tree at the town center is quite moving; the high school graduation of the class of 2019 on the school’s football field is a crucial, hard-fought moment; and the first resident to receive a rebuilding permit is monumental.
In a way, Rebuilding Paradise feels strange to watch when the country is melting down and 150,000 U.S. citizens have died due to a pandemic, but the issues with financial help, government hurdles, overwhelming anxiety, and resistance from those who don’t believe in returning things to the way they were (some question why rebuilding in a place prone to firestorms makes sense) are still relevant. We follow the residents for about a year after the fire, and lives shift drastically in that time. One local police officer who leads a great deal of the rebuilding efforts (and lost his house during the fire, watching as it happened) ends up going through major life changes. The school psychiatrist is herself suffering from PTSD, since she was almost killed in the blaze. And the school superintendent who fights so hard to get students into other schools around the area while the largely untouched Paradise school is prepped for reopening plans for her retirement in the wake of a major tragedy.
As a veteran storyteller, Howard finds a compelling and respectful way to tell the story of Paradise by narrowing his focus on a few key townspeople, some of whom make the painful decision not to return to the place where many of them have lived their entire lives. Rebuilding Paradise is filled with equal parts heartache and hope, and when we leave these folks, we’re still not entirely sure all will be entirely well in this place (the issue of a water supply poisoned by miles of melted plastic pipes may take years to truly fix). But Howard isn’t interested in giving us a completely happy ending; he’s telling a story about courage and spirit and a type of faith that doesn’t come from religion. I dare you not to be moved by this film.
The film is available now as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Film Center from Your Sofa program.
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