Producers: Ron Howard, Brian Glazer, Xan Parker, Sara Bernstein and Justin Wilkes Director: Ron Howard Select Cast: Matt Gates, Michelle John, Woody Culleton and Erin Brockovich Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films
Last year Zachary Canepari and Drea Cooper’s Netflix documentary “Fire in Paradise” offered a horrifying portrait of California’s so-called Camp Fire, which blazed in November, 2018 and virtually annihilated the foothills town of Paradise, killing 85 people in the process. The film used direct-to-the-camera interviews and dash-cam footage to capture the horror of what was the deadliest, most destructive fire in the state’s history.
Ron Howard’s film can be considered a complement, even a sequel, to the earlier one. It also offers reminiscences from some who went through the ordeal—prominent among them crusty Steve “Woody” Culleton, policeman Matt Gates and school superintendant Michelle John—as well as contemporary dash-cam and cell-phone footage (though eschewing some of the most harrowing images included in the earlier film, such as the awful sight of a burnt body in a car trapped by the fire).
Its emphasis, however, is on the effort by committed residents of Paradise to rebuild their community. There is footage of Culleton doing the paperwork required to allow him to reconstruct his home where it once stood, and John dealing with a family tragedy while getting the high school up and running again, though students ruminate about what they have lost and one walks through the back yard of what was his family home, vowing to return and raise his children there.
Activist Erin Brockovich showed up to voice her support for the residents, and Howard includes a brief of her speech to them. He also gives space to the apology made by a representative of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, whose faulty power line was found to have sparked the blaze.
But the emphasis of Howard’s documentary–which, predictably, is well crafted, with skilled cinematography by Lincoln Else, expert editing by M. Watanabe Milmore and Gladys Murphy and a supportive score by Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe–is on the ordinary people who suffered through the disaster and are now struggling to rebuild as quickly and completely as possible, with a coda about using forest-control techniques (some centuries old) to minimize the chance of a fire’s rapid spread.
That means that “Rebuilding Paradise” is not the complete story of the Camp Fire; no single documentary could be. It’s not analytical, but rather a visceral—and moving—snapshot of the personal suffering arising from a terrible disaster and the courageous effort to deal with its aftermath, a tribute to people like Culleton, John and Gates and the thousands of others who lived in the town—a sort of true paradise, from the looks of old home movies—so suddenly, but one hopes not irrevocably, wiped out.