Directed by Ron Howard
When my father retired around 1990, he built a house in Paradise, California and lived there for at least a decade. He did not live long enough to know that the house he built was almost certainly destroyed.
From my point of view, watching Ron Howard’s documentary about the people of Paradise, and their work to rebuild their town, felt very much like nostalgia burning down to the ground.
As one would expect, the film starts with news clips and home videos of the fire itself. People are trapped while flames leap all around them. Eventually, the narrative focuses on a single terrified family in their car, driving through an inferno. Then the flames and smoke clear up, and the father reassures his family that they’re safe. And that’s just the prologue.
But it’s also an effective way to transition from what we all expect to see, the fire, to the film’s real theme: How do you rebuild the town and community you love? I don’t know how many Paradise residents left the town forever. Howard concentrates on those that stayed. The film covers the first years after the fire.
Keep in mind just how much the so-called Camp Fire destroyed (what an absurd name for that horrific conflagration). It killed 85 people and displaced more than 50,000. According to the film’s press notes, it’s the “most destructive fire in U.S. history.”
Howard uses no narration but tells the story through people speaking in town meetings and other events, along with individuals talking in their own, temporary dwellings. Sometimes what they say breaks your heart. A little girl, completely safe and seemingly calm, could say nothing but “Fire, fire.”
The documentary shows something rarely seen in media recently; a nice policeman. He describes finding and then hugging a woman; he had been searching for her body. Later on, he jokes about cops and donut shops.
Intertitles, such as “3 months after the fire,” split Rebuilding Paradise into chapters. Many areas are off limits. Townspeople deal with FEMA, PG&E, and other bureaucratic entities. Teenagers must graduate when there’s no usable school building. And yet almost everyone interviewed tells people how much they love Paradise and why they’re not leaving.
And yes, Howard makes us understand that climate change is a large part of the problem. Near the end, some teenagers donate money to other disasters around the country and the world. My father would have approved.