The Camp Fire burned through Paradise nearly two years ago, killing dozens and decimating thousands of homes. Now, lauded film director Ron Howard’s new documentary, "Rebuilding Paradise," showcases how the community persevered — and began rebuilding their lives from nothing.
The Camp Fire was (and still is) the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history; it, too, was the most expensive natural disaster in the world in 2018 in terms of insured losses. But as demoralizing as the structural carnage was, the toll the wildfire took on human life was even worse, killing 85 people and leaving 40,000 to suddenly find refuge elsewhere. Off the heels of directing Solo: A Star Wars Movie — admittedly, a much different cinematic endeavor to this follow-up — the Oscar-winning filmmaker is set to debut his first dive into realistic naturalism with the documentary Rebuilding Paradise, which sharply tells the horror felt that November day as people fled the then-incinerated town in droves, as well as how their lives were utterly changed forever.
artist who creates art in the ruins of the #Campfire #ParadiseCalifornia #ParadiseStrong I took this pic while we were shooting a documentary about the Fire and it’s aftermath pic.twitter.com/237tnP7liP— Ron Howard (@RealRonHoward) March 9, 2019
“November 8th at 7:30 in the morning, [Paradise] started to burn down,” Steve “Woody” Culleton, a self-knighted “crisis junkie” and focal point in the film (who has an almost uncanny resemblance to Howard), says in the first thirty-seconds of the film’s released trailer. “Within three hours, the town was gone.”
And, as the New York Times notes in their favorable, albeit short review of the film: the most heart-wrenching cinematic stills in the film are seared on the screen within the first ten minutes.
Per the Chronicle, the feature-length film delves into the lives of Culleton — who at the time worked in nearby Durham — and others who were affected in the autumn blaze, piecing together a kaleidoscope of footage procured from first responders’ body cameras, smart-phone-captures stills and videos, and intimate to-camera interviews where residences of the town speak of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs they’ve experienced since their lives collectively shifted.
The added layer of near tangible intimacy is also helped by the fact that Howard, himself, used to visit Paradise when his mother-in-law called the small, sleepy Northern California town home.
“I had a connection to the area and really understood the people who live there and their mind-set,” Howard tells the Chronicle.” Very self-reliant people, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, cowboy mentality — I related to all that. I thought, ‘Here are people I understand.”
“They look like me,” he continues. “They sound like me. And they’re going through this. What must that be like?'”
Though the just over ninety-minute film spans the topical gamut — discussing the mental health taxes the fire took on the survivors; how many feared long-time residents would never return to Paradise; the sheer, seemingly insurmountable cataclysm caused by over 90 percent of the town vanishing in plumes of smoke within a few hours — a center point is contending with the town’s questionable politics and inner political workings.
“I used to be on the [town council]. I know what’s going on in those back rooms,” Culleton tells. “I wasn’t withholding any punches. … I think they saw me as a resource because of my willingness to speak openly about how some of the crap worked.”
But, alas, the documentary also celebrates the successes and victories as some semblance of normalcy returns to the town’s residences. (In the 90-second trailers, children can be seen rummaging for Easter eggs in a green pasture and, at one point, even a large school band is shown playing to an excited crowd.)
As for “Woody”? Well, the Paradise elder isn’t hanging up his civic hat quite yet. The 75-year-old, three-time Paradise mayor is now running for yet another term on the Paradise Town Council.
And Culleton has also made a fair amount of headway on the new home he’s currently landscaping: “There’s no place else I want to be. This is where I reinvented my life. … This is my forever home.”
You can watch “Rebuilding Paradise” starting tomorrow, July 31, in select theaters and available through online cinemas on demand.
Image: Courtesy of U.S. Air Force via Staff Sgt. Taylor A. Workman