Rebuilding Paradise

"Rebuilding Paradise" poster. 

Ron Howard has directed dozens of movies since 1977, and while he’s certainly known for the 1991 firefighter saga “Backdraft,” the first nine minutes of Howard’s new documentary “Rebuilding Paradise” (Imagine-National Geographic, 2020, 95 mins.), available at Cinemapolis’s virtual cinema and on VOD, is the most terrifying footage I’ve ever seen; all the more so because it’s real.

What we’re seeing, recorded from news sources and cell phone video, is what happened when the worst forest fire in California history swept through the little town of Paradise in 2018. It looks like it’s the middle of the night, but that’s because of the unbelievable smoke and debris in the air. Weeping passengers whip their cars through the streets because the tires are melting into the blacktop, and in the distance blue skies and clouds, a possible escape from this fiery conflagration.

I’m ashamed that I wasn’t really aware of the blazing devastation that reduced most of Paradise to ash and took the lives of 85 people. I do remember Trump’s typically self-serving and clumsy statement in the aftermath, and we see that here. But after the news crews from CNN and Fox took off when the headline got cold, Howard and his crew kept going back to Paradise a few times a month over the next year, telling the real story: how a town can possibly come back from such a cataclysmic event.

It’s slow going, as you can imagine. Howard tracks the town’s slow attempt at recovery through several locals, including a policeman and the school superintendent, faced with eight of nine of the local schools burned down. People end up moving. Couples separate. Businesses close. California’s power and water company attempts to force the town to pay for much of the needed rebuilding. There are angry town hall meetings. More people die. Life goes on.

As powerful and affecting as “Rebuilding Paradise” is, this is one documentary that deserves a follow-up visit, perhaps a series of them. Yes, the film takes us through a year of rebuilding, but how is Paradise doing now, six months into COVID-19? We’ve certainly seen that the corona virus takes down businesses as well as human lives, and there are many places like Paradise that have been turned into ghost towns when disaster strikes…

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