Documentary, rated PG-13, 95 minutes, on Violet Crown’s virtual cinema, 3.5 chiles
“Are we going to get far away from Paradise?” a nervous child asks his father as they slowly make their way by car out of the fire-ravaged California town. “Yes,” his father answers. “We are.” You never see the driver or his family, only the apocalyptic view from the car window. “That’s Laura’s house,” says the child as they pass a blazing structure that no longer resembles a home. When they finally reach clear skies, the family breaks down in tears.
But not everyone survived the 2018 Camp Fire, which was the most destructive wildfire in California history. As scenes of the horrifying aftermath play out in director Ron Howard’s new documentary, one reporter can be heard off-screen saying the fire spread from 200 acres to 18,000 in a matter of hours. Another states that at least five people died in their cars while attempting to flee. When it was over, the death toll would climb to 85. And the town of Paradise, with a population of over 26,000, was reduced to rubble and ash.
The Camp Fire was a “perfect storm,” says a firefighter interviewed for the film. It broke out eight miles from Paradise, in a region beset by five years of drought, and increased rapidly, driven by high winds.
“As hard as it is to say, I don’t see the town coming back,” says one resident at a makeshift camp for the survivors.
But it is coming back, and that’s the subject of Howard’s emotionally charged and moving film. In his narrative features (Backdraft, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind), Howard knew how to pull the audience’s heartstrings. But here, early scenes of the fire and the desperate attempts to escape it, which are terrifying, the later testimonies of the survivors and their post-traumatic stress, are enough.
When residents were allowed back into the town after a month, most of them knew there would be nothing left of their former lives in Paradise. Their homes, businesses, and schools were all gone. They picked through the wreckage for what little could be salvaged.
Soon, campers were brought in as temporary residences. A makeshift high school was established 18 miles away. While some people left for good, others returned, intent on rebuilding. With a history stretching back to the days of the Gold Rush, Paradise is a town with civic pride. Befitting its name, it’s picturesque, surrounded by the beauty of the northern California forests. People live there because they want to.
This is a film about what it takes to persevere in the face of tragedy. In Rebuilding Paradise, we witness a community coming together to start again, closer than ever before because of their shared experiences. But, while Howard decidedly makes the second half into a story of triumph, the truth is more complex. The townsfolk will live with the permanent scars of the fire, whether they’re psychological or physical. Not much time is devoted to those residents who refused to return. Still, less than two years after the fire, Paradise is like a phoenix rising from the ashes. It has a long way to go, but the commitment to rebuilding is there. And the progress made, thus far, offers glimmers of hope.