Rebuilding Paradise


‘…a sobering film, and a valuable contribution to current discussions about whether we can ignore science for short-term gain…’

Paradise, CA - Ron Howard and Steve "Woody" Culleton on Woody's property in Paradise, CA.

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.



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  1. Sounds truly thought-provoking without condescension too. I like that the idea of rebuilding is almost symbolic here; it’s definitely going to be important for everyone to work together towards building a better future post-pandemic/wildfires.

  2. Interesting concept – the rebuilding of communities. Nobody did anything a film like that after WW2. But the human price for any disaster is always big and it is interesting to see how – and if – communities come together. Two points though – I think most houses in America are built of wood so more likely to be engulfed by flames and also it is virtually impossible to put out a forest fire because of the dead leaves and twigs on the forest floor which go up immediately.

    • I hadn’t followed this story closely in 2018, so this was all an eye-opener to me. I’d found it hard to imagine how such damage to property and human life could be done in modern times, but this doc gives you a crash course. There was a good movie in 2018, Only the Brave, which looked at the heroes who have to deal with these infernoes; whether it’s to do with the management, or the climate, it does feel like this problem is getting worse, and thoughts go out to those whose communities are affected.

  3. I wonder why its going into cinemas here and prime in the US, I would think it would be the other way round seeing as we really don’t have the fire problem here so not sure the UK audience would be up for an outing to the pics to watch a documentary on it. Hope it does come to prime UK I would wath it.

    • Put it on your wath list to be sure! At the moment, it’s US cinema audiences that are lagging behind, so I guess they must feel they have a more direct shot at reaching a US audience via streaming; Disney seem to think so. I have to confess I didn’t pay much attention to this story back in 2018, so now seems a good time to pay attention…I’m endevouring to get US links to put on the end of the review.

    • Well, I have to admit that the most off-putting aspect of US politics is the partizanship, and I admire those who seek to establish a universal truth rather than endless points-scoring…

    • I think there’s an urgency about the forest fire issue, but also about the notion of how we can rebuilt what’s broken in our society. I love some of Howard’s films, others less so, but he’s a consummate professional and does a nice job here to avoid alienating anyone and being stringent about the story he tells..another one for your groaning watch-pile!

      • Haha…yeah that pile is definitely groaning lol. Good thing though…I have a three day weekend coming up, so hopefully I can take some of the groans out of it! 😂😂

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