Film Reviews

Rebuilding Paradise review: Dir. Ron Howard (2020)

Rebuilding Paradise offers an intense impact from the very start of this documentary, as director Ron Howard blends genuine personal footage, and news reports, from the early moments of the devastating wildfire that completely consumed the city of Paradise in California, on 8 November 2018.

While it is overwhelming, this would be just an edge of emotion, considering what happened and by using resident’s footage, and that of the local Police force, we witness the entire town on fire and the scale of devastation is heart-breaking. To further the emotional attachment, we also learn that by the time the fire was as under control as it could be, it was already too late with 95% of Paradise burned to the ground, meaning that more than 50,000 residents had to be relocated and that 85 people tragically died.

From a UK perspective, I only had brief knowledge of the sheer intensity of destruction, as a lot of focus was on the news report of Trump calling the town ‘Pleasure’, instead of Paradise, and to be honest that received more coverage than it should have done. If anything, it’s embarrassing that we live in a world where things this important are eclipsed by something so minor, given the wider picture.

Thankfully, in Rebuilding Paradise, Director Ron Howard chooses to place the focus of the documentary on the town itself, and all the different situations, decisions and outcomes that stem from that tragic night. While it was the deadliest US fire in 100 years, and also damaged more than 150,000 acres, in the 141-year-old town, there was a strong community and this is what we learn about; the people, the families, schools, Police, fire fighters and workers, all hoping they can somehow build something back from the literal ashes.

We meet a number of people from Paradise and they’re all so important, each individual we follow is trying to bring some semblance of normality but you’ve got to remember they’re all dealing with no electricity, destroyed water systems, poisoned land, financial crises, and of course loss, grief and genuine PTSD from those who could have also died as the fires raged. In Rebuilding Paradise, we witness positive hope for the future, how community members came together over the course of a year. It’s equally devastating, heart-breaking and eye-opening but also rewarding as small victories are huge, considering what they’ve been through.

I was also impressed by the subtle nods towards the vast reasons for how these fires begin: which is mainly humanity, alongside climate change and – yes, again – humanity. What concerns me with climate-change deniers is there’s real Science behind it. Temperatures haven’t just risen by chance, forest fires don’t happen just ‘because’ and we learn a bit more from Zeke Lunder, who’s a Pyro-geographer, and he tells that all along the west coast, we’ve destroyed natural habitats and thus are no longer self-regulating, therefore creating the perfect conditions for these kind of distressing fires. This is essential information, and something we shouldn’t dismiss.

The truth is, while Rebuilding Paradise is about community and the good things that come from horrific situations, it’s also proof that we all need to do better with the natural world. Sadly, Paradise is proof that we need to start protecting each other, in both the world around us and our governments. I know it’s an ongoing fight, and people don’t like talking about it, but I often feel like there is no ‘us and them’ – as much as the media would like to push that agenda – there’s only ‘us’, and isn’t that always worth fighting for?

I wouldn’t usually finish with a quote but, in the words of Ron Howard himself, I thought this summed it beautifully:

 “Now more than ever, we need to remember that when people come together for the greater good, we can make a positive change in our shared future. The passion and commitment of the people of Paradise, to one another and to rebuilding their community, is a reminder of the strength and resilience of the human spirit.”

Rebuilding Paradise is out now: https://films.nationalgeographic.com/rebuilding-paradise/

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