Rebuilding Paradise (2020) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

Rebuilding Paradise (2020) is a new documentary directed by Ron Howard that tells the devastating story of the 2018 fire in Paradise, California located in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and the slow process of recovery and rebuilding. The “Camp Fire”, so named because of the location the fire began, ignited as the result of a spark from a transmission line and grew into an uncontrollable blaze due to climate conditions.  Once extinguished, the fire had killed 85 people, displaced 50,000 residents, and destroyed 95% of local structures – becoming the deadliest U.S. fire in 100 years.

A home burns as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, CA on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (Photo by Noah Berger)

The film opens with a ton of footage of the fire, all from a variety of sources. It really manages to instill the fear that everyone there was experiencing. It then pivots into the real story the film will be telling: the nightmare of rebuilding. In this way, Howard presents the big picture of what the city is going through while finding many individual stories to share. The film manages to navigate between both the large scale of an entire city basically needed to be taken care of, and then the extremely devastating individual tales. 

The personal story I connected with most was Michelle John. She was the Paradise Unified School District Superintendent. As a teacher myself having to celebrate my seniors’ graduation during a pandemic by waving posterboard signs at them as they drove past me in a makeshift parade rather than our traditional graduation ceremony, I was 100% emotionally invested in John’s attempt to give their students something resembling school. The struggles they were going to face with graduation and all of the ups and downs John went through truly wrecked me emotionally. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried several times during this documentary – but the biggest tears always came in relation to something with John’s story. 

That’s not to say many of the other stories aren’t as compelling or as devastating as John’s. However, the plight of the community at large is upsetting. The various requirements that FEMA instills in order for them to pay for elements of the recovery process were aggravating for the members of the community, as well as for the audience watching the documentary. We see the tents they are living in – and then, once they are able to return into the city – being told they can’t stay on their own property if they want FEMA to remove the debris. The source of the fire becomes a legal issue that the town must face. As if dealing with the loss of your entire world wouldn’t be enough, we are able to catch a glimpse of the nightmare bureaucracy can have on one’s hope of rebuilding. 

Paradise, CA – Mauny Roethler stands for portraits at a clean up site in Paradise, California. Mauny has been involved in the clean up at a very practical level: clearing lots and removing debris. (National Geographic/Pete Muller)

Rebuilding Paradise is even more devastating to watch, as we realize the film ends just a few months before a worldwide pandemic will strike. Still, it’s a story that is worth your time – and it’s told expertly by Howard and his team. Rebuilding Paradise will be out on July 31, 2020, and is definitely worth your time earning the Must See rating.

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