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Fire sparks resilience in Paradise documentary

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

With northern Nevada skylines increasingly bearing the orange tinges of nearby fires, Ron Howard’s new documentary Rebuilding Paradise gains extra resonance. Just three hours from Tahoe, Paradise, California shares Sierra terrain with mountains and trees growing dry through drought.

Almost two years ago, smoke filled skies for hundreds of miles around as the town of Paradise burned—a verbal description that fails to catch the horrifying, devastating impact that occurs when nearly every home and building disappears in flames. Howard’s project takes viewers into the midst of the catastrophe, forcefully showing the traumatic effects on people and the once-normal lives they led.

News cameras and cell phones caught some of the event’s immediate horror, and Howard edits the material together for an opening sequence that burns into the psyche. He follows that with a patient process of repeated visits to the community, one he knows because his mother-in-law lived there years ago. Using a cinema verité approach without script or narration, Howard lets events unfold naturally, with drama needing no invention by a screenwriter.

His team finds locals whose experiences and emotions illustrate that the fire’s reach goes beyond buildings and into souls. Able to bring in cameras throughout the first year of rebuilding, Howard shows lingering impacts on health and relationships, along with bureaucratic nightmares and roadblocks that slow progress. And while that concept of restoration leads to the uplifting title of Rebuilding Paradise, the success of that name remains uncertain, with many structures and residents gone forever.

Hope and resilience shine through—for instance, local teens send disaster relief to hurricane victims whose experience no longer seems like a distant, vague phrase in the news media. But now—community members who started wearing face masks and asking questions about attending high school graduation two years ago—once again need to take special measures as Covid-19 sweeps through the nation. And, as Howard’s last shots show, no one should consider themselves invulnerable to fire.

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