November 8th, 2018 feels like several lifetimes ago. 85 lifetimes, if you want to put a precise number on it. That’s how many people died that day in Paradise, California. 50,000 more were left homeless in what would later be called “the worst fire in California history.”
The documentary “Rebuilding Paradise,” directed by Ron Howard, follows several citizens and council people of Paradise, and their agonizing effort to rise from the ashes. Howard wastes little time, reeling off a montage of first-person footage from the event, engulfing the viewer in a landscape of fire, smoke, and ash (so much ash). The footage is shot on cellphones, GoPros, dash cams, among other devices; some of it is mesmerizing, all of it is terrifying. When four horses gallop through a forest black as charcoal, you forget you’re watching a documentary and assume you entered the latest “Left Behind” movie, or Roland Emmerich blockbuster. It’s the hardest part of the movie to watch, but it’s also essential to understanding the emotional trauma these people went through.
For the most part, “Rebuilding Paradise” delivers on its defiant title. Howard is best known for his stories about finding faith in hard times (his firefighting melodrama “Backdraft” is a good example), and this is no exception. He conducts interviews with the citizens of Paradise as a way of showing how communities fight back against tragedy. Many of the survivors found shelter in tents outside of Walmart or housing provided by FEMA, while others were forced to live with strangers miles away from town. All of them, however, want to return and rebuild.
“Paradise is all we know,” says local sheriff Matt Gates. “It can’t be replaced.” That doesn’t stop the community from trying, in scenes that spark great passion and compassion, not to mention the spirited debate about whether it’s safe to return to a town burnt to a crisp, a town without running water, electricity or schools. The resilience of those who want to return makes Howard’s documentary vital and essential. There’s Woody Culleton, a town drunk who ended up being the town mayor. His attempt to build a new home is long and hard and serves as a metaphor for the town at large. There’s also the high school seniors who vow to finish school in Paradise, even while their hangout spots are off-limits due to dangerous conditions.
There doesn’t seem to be much that’s off-limits to Howard. His camera captures the emotional pain and Town Hall meetings, as well as the rebuilding of schools, houses, friendships. Even when it feels like it was commissioned by the Paradise tourist committee, with lots of “look at how great our town is” sentiments, “Rebuilding Paradise” resonates, especially as we deal with our own parallel national disaster.
As COVID-19 cases continue to spike around the country, our own lives, jobs, and schools are at risk. But “Rebuilding Paradise” reminds us that even after a razing, life will return and grow from under the ashes of destruction. Injuries heal, physical, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise. And while that may sound like clunky optimism on the part of Howard — and arguably what makes a lot of his oeuvre iffy—but in our current cultural context, man, it’s just the kind of uplift the spirit needs right now. His final shot is a thing of hopeful beauty. Taking a page out of “Princes Mononke’s” book, Hayao Miyazaki‘s animated feature that ends with flowers blooming on a burnt mountainside, Howard flies a drone over the recovered Paradise. The city is burnt no more and trees stretch as far as the eye can see. For the first time, it actually looks like its halcyon namesake and the perfect Eden to heal painful wounds. [B]