by Brandon Thomas
It’s an indisputable truth that we’re living at a time when the effects of human civilization are having a massive impact on the environment. Climate change is all around us. From stronger hurricanes and cyclones in our oceans, to half of Australia burning, the catastrophic change we’ve caused is something that’s become impossible to ignore.
While climate change and humans’ impact on it continues to be a political lightning rod, there are real people all over the world suffering the effects. Rebuilding Paradise tells the story of one such town and its residents.
On November 8th, 2018, an enormous wildfire overtook the small northern California town of Paradise. The Camp Fire, as it became known, destroyed most of Paradise and much of the surrounding area. Many residents were left without homes and jobs. Most of the city’s schools were either destroyed entirely or severely damaged. Eighty-five residents lost their lives that day.
A lot of people would’ve left and never looked back. For many of the residents of Paradise, turning their backs on their community wasn’t an option.
Finding Paradise opens with a harrowing series of videos shot by Paradise residents. As they flee, the footage shows nothing short of an absolute hellscape. Propane tanks explode in the distance as panicked families try to decide the safest route. At one point a resident asks another, “Are we going to die?” As a viewer, this devastating footage makes it all the easier to understand the PTSD that residents felt in the weeks and months following.
In the last decade, director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) has started to dabble more and more in the documentary field. His first two efforts, Made In America and Pavarotti, showed an already confident filmmaker finding his groove in a new genre. With Rebuilding Paradise, Howard’s confidence is solidified.
It would’ve been easy to make Rebuilding Paradise an exercise in tragedy porn. Instead, Howard builds the film as a tribute to the strength and the resiliency of the people of Paradise. The utter devastation at the beginning of the film is beautifully bookended by extraordinary acts of kindness. A community bends over backwards to make sure the few graduating Paradise seniors get to walk across the football field at their own high school. People open their doors to estranged family members who lost everything in the conflagration.
Howard’s insistence on focusing on the people of Paradise allows the film to stay deeply personal. Some of the worst that nature has to offer allows us to see just how decent, hardy, and inspiring people can be when pushed.