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Rebuilding Paradise - Documentary Review

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. My debut poetry pamphlet is available at
Published January 2nd 2021
Trouble in Paradise

"We're 100% surrounded by fire."

Ron Howard's new film has one of the most gripping opening sequences I have seen. It really demands to be watched on the big screen and not a laptop, which is how I viewed it.

The 90-minute vérité documentary opens with aerial shots of California, overlaid by a morning news report which mentions red flag warnings and strong winds. Soon we are driven into a chaotic, cacophonous world - an inferno rampaging in a small town.

A montage of loudspeakers, emergency service calls, dashcam, bodycam and mobile phone footage interrupt each other as the urgency to escape the flames intensifies. Escaping cars drive through smoke and riderless horses seek out refuge.

Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe's soundtrack ratchets up the tension and the foreboding atmosphere.

Ron Howard, Hans Zimmer, Lorne Balfe, California, climate change, cinema, documentary, Erin Brokovitch, National Geographic Documentary, Imagine Documentaries
By Source, Fair use

Then the frenzy cools to the cold reality of the days after the firestorm. We realise that this is not an action film or feverous nightmare. Instead, we are in Paradise, a town originally built on the lure of the gold rush and commercial logging. The townspeople are picking through the ashes of their daily lives.

Others show us their makeshift beds and salvaged possessions in the crowded disaster recovery centres and Red Cross Shelters. Or they may be spending the night in one of the tents pitched up on land outside Walmart. Even the tap water, we learn, is poisoned by the flames - it is infected with benzine chemicals released in the fire.

Ron Howard wisely opted not to have a voice-over and interviews with academics from outside of the community. Instead, we hear from members of Paradise Fire Department, who identify the causes of the inferno as five years of drought, a campfire eight miles away and a 40-mile-an-hour wind. "Everything lined up perfectly that day" says one speaker, talking about the ill-fated date of 8 November 2018.

The film is divided into chapters based on intervals of weeks and months in the year after the disaster. Ron Howard, working with producer Xan Parker, researched what psychologists call the stages of grief to add another layer of narrative structure.

We hear from a wide selection of Paradise residents, but a few get extra focus and screen time. Woody Cullerton describes his personal journey as going from "town drunk to [former] town mayor." His experience of turning his life around serves him well as he obtains permission to build a new house. In one affecting scene the accumulated trauma beneath his folksy wisdom gives way to tears.

Michelle John was the Superintendent for schools. Eight out of Paradise district's nine schools were damaged or destroyed and "a thousand kids are missing" from the register. She has the pressing challenge of getting classroom space for students and re-establishing the traditional high school graduation ceremony on the school's sports field. The importance of this Paradise rite of passage is expressed, in the film, by senior students like Zach Boston and Brandon Burke.

Matt Gates is a handsome, conscientiousness cop who looks like he is from Hollywood central casting. But we gradually learn how his dedication to public service and community rebuilding has had a destructive impact on his own personal life.

There is even a cameo appearance by Consumer Advocate and Environmental Activist Erin Brockovich - a rare out-of-town voice in the film.

Rebuilding Paradise is dedicated to the 85 people who lost their lives in the fire. Any documentary-maker has to edit a large amount of footage to zone in on the story they want to tell. But rather than preaching about social and environmental issues, Ron Howard's film shows how a community can recover from devastation - "an object lesson in problem-solving ."

It also hints at whose voices we should be listening to if we want to stop another perfect storm of small individual fires becoming a conflagration. Despite the town's inspiring determination to rise again from the ashes, it would clearly be better if the tragedy had been prevented in the first place.

Having made documentaries about Pavarotti and The Beatles, Ron Howard is currently working on one about José Andrés and his World Central Kitchen.

Ron Howard, Hans Zimmer, Lorne Balfe, California, climate change, cinema, documentary, Erin Brokovitch, National Geographic Documentary, Apollo 13
Ron Howard with Tom Hanks and the production crew of Apollo 13 (1995) By NASA - NASA Image and Video Library, Public Domain,
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Why? Compelling documentary about a small town’s determination to rise from the ashes
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