‘Come, my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a newer world,’ Tennyson’s words never seemed as appropriate as now. Ron Howard’s National Geographic documentary starts back in 2018, but the delay in reaching an audience has created a new relevance; we now know the a viral catastrophe that was round the corner, ready to double up the difficulty levels shown here.
We start with the 2018 California wildfires; a footnote for worldwide news, except that the current climate change discussion, and the re-occurrence of said deadly fires in 2020, makes Rebuilding Paradise feel torn from the headlines. The footage gathered here is shocking; walls of fire menacing residents and motorists, home-owners incinerated in their own gardens. The found-footage adds a sense of immediacy; it’s hard to argue that these are normal weather conditions, or that exploding trees or a local failure to sweep up leaves could be the culprit. The residents of Paradise return to the wreckage of their homes, only to find that the process of rebuilding their communities is no simple task, and Howard’s film patiently follows their efforts. And yet there are fun elements here that stop rebuilding Paradise seeming like a lecture; Erin Brockovich-Ellis turns up as if from some Avengers Assemble of ecologically-minded activists, and we spend a lot of time with Mayor Steve ‘Woody’ Culleton, a man who bears something of a striking resemblance to Howard himself.
It’s painfully ironic that another natural disaster, the Covid-19 virus, should have cancelled Rebuilding Paradise’s Tribeca premiere this year; the theme, of how we rebuild, could not be more relevant to 2020. Howard skips the political grandstanding, and focuses on the human stories involved; we see in microcosm how the different parts of the community wrestle with their own issues. And the nagging thought that things cannot ever be the same endures; like the rest of the world, the inhabitants of Paradise have to work towards a new normal, looking forwards rather than backwards.
Howard knows about fire, of course, from Backdraft, but resists the temptation to Hollywood-ise the issues here. Rebuilding Paradise is a sobering film, and a valuable contribution to current discussions about whether we can ignore science for short-term gain. It’s essential viewing, not because the kind of fires featured here are likely to happen to you, but because the whole world is going to need to rebuild soon from a larger natural disaster, and lessons about the current American conflagration must be learned if we are to build a better, newer world.
Rebuilding Paradise is in UK cinemas from Sept 25th 2020, and can be streamed in the US on Prime for $5.99.
Thanks to Dogwoof for advanced access to this film.