Experiencing the Two Nightmares of Paradise

The 2018 Camp Fire's devastation of Paradise, California, and its aftermath are depicted in two documentaries that go perfectly together.

Rebuilding Paradise documentary
Photo by Noah Berger courtesy of National Geographic

Fire in Paradise is one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in years. The short documentary, directed by Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper and released on Netflix in November 2019, depicts the fire that pretty much destroyed the entire town of Paradise, California, on November 8, 2018. Through emotional first-hand testimonial interviews and day-of cellphone footage from inside of cars and school buses driving through apocalyptic scenery, the film puts us as close to experiencing the literal hellscape of the disaster as possible.

The parts of Fire in Paradise I’ll never forget are those that involve teacher Mary Ludwig, who helped in evacuating, with bus driver Kevin McKay, more than twenty elementary school kids through flame-engulfed roads to eventual safety. As she’s telling the events and we’re seeing footage shot from the bus, I got the visceral sense of being there and felt afraid for the kids. I had to keep reminding myself that Ludwig appearing on screen in the film means they survived. As a father, that narrative within a film presenting multiple heartbreaking scenarios hits home the hardest.

There is nothing as moving as that or any other part of Fire in Paradise in the Ron Howard-helmed documentary feature Rebuilding Paradise. But the latter film, while definitely aiming for some emotional connections, is meant to take us to another level of the Paradise disaster: what happens next. Rebuilding Paradise, despiting being released on the small screen by National Geographic (following a virtual theatrical release by Abramorama), is sort of a sequel to the Netflix doc. One shows us the main tragedy and the other shows us the residual nightmares of such a tragedy.

Documentaries like Rebuilding Paradise are probably the more important of the two types. They can definitely be the more interesting and more inciting variety. We see the footage and hear the stories of the day with many disasters, whether it be 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or any of a number of cataclysmic storms, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc., and we weep for the lives and property lost, and then we move on. Meanwhile, the survivors of those disasters are dealing with insurance, funerals, government offices, and other stressful matters while maybe living in a gymnasium or FEMA shelter.

Rebuilding Paradise fits into a subgenre of after-disaster documentaries like the post-9/11 film Out of the Clear Blue Sky, the Indian Ocean tsunami film From Dust, and the Haitian relief-focused Fatal Assistance, the last of which will make you think twice about just throwing money at a charity organization to help you sleep at night. Experiencing the disaster as it’s happening, as with a film like Fire in Paradise, makes you feel helpless since what’s done is done. Rebuilding Paradise overwhelms in a different way with all the bureaucracy and legalities that survivors must navigate to not just physically rebuild but also repair any peace of mind, especially where blame and restitution is concerned.

Rebuilding Paradise is more of a reminder of the continued struggles of disaster survivors than a worthy documentary on its own. There’s something about it being directed by a famous person like Ron Howard that distracts, as I wonder if Howard is really there with his crew in Paradise intermittently throughout the year. Or is he directing from afar and never interacting with his subjects? Docs like this shouldn’t have much authorial voice, but when it comes from a prominent filmmaker you’re left wondering about their actual participatory perspective in its production. Or maybe that’s just me?

There’s not as much I took away from Rebuilding Paradise other than maybe Erin Brockovich — another celebrity figure involved in the film, as a supporting character — leading the fight against the power company PG&E for their culpability in the disaster. None of the Paradise residents stand out too much in my mind, which is to no fault of their own. The film, in sticking to a structure of presenting strictly one year of the aftermath for a broad scope of stories, never comes across as being embedded with the people or place. Where Fire in Paradise puts us right there in the thick of the flames, Rebuilding Paradise feels more distant, from the outside, just visiting.

Understandably, it’s a complicated and difficult task to make films like either of these and have the double effect that is needed. On the one hand, these docs are very specifically about the fire that devastated Paradise and its aftermath. As dispatcher Beth Bowersox says at the end of Fire in Paradise, “There will be more catastrophic events…and people are going to forget. And I don’t want them to forget. Because there are so many people who still need help. And there’s still so much stuff that needs to be done.” Rebuilding Paradise sort of grants that wish of hers by showing who needs help and what needs to be done. Together, the two films honor the legacy of the event.

On the other hand, these two films about this one town and its tragedy also want to acknowledge that this is just one of many catastrophic events happening, particullarly due to climate change. Paradise wasn’t even the only town completely destroyed by the Camp Fire of 2018. And just two months ago, another fire totally decimated Berry Creek, a town in the same county as Paradise. Both of these docs have their own montage of disasters around the world as a way of showing how the wildfires fit that larger issue. In terms of addressing what happens next, they mean for all of us, preventively.

Paradise benefits, as far as recognition goes, by having a name that lends itself well to film titles, headlines for reviews of those films, and just our memory. “Fire in Concow” or “Rebuilding Berry Creek” don’t have the same ring to them, if such documentaries are to exist about those towns’ disasters. So when you watch Fire in Paradise and Rebuilding Paradise as a pairing, preferably in that order, think of the specific as well as the shared misfortunes and also consider the potential of more that shouldn’t need to be.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.