By Mandy Feder-Sawyer
A once remote, rural, largely unknown California mountain town now lives in infamy worldwide.
In Ron Howard’s documentary, Rebuilding Paradise, the audience is along for the entire ride – the harrowing and horrific drive through the flames to a community grappling to find its place in the aftermath of the deadliest fire in California history.
The documentary film started streaming in Virtual Cinemas on Friday, July 31, through websites of independent theaters nationwide.
Majestic Ponderosa pine trees once canopied the historic gold-mining town formerly referred to as “Pair ‘O’ Dice.” The Camp Fire was a blaze that incinerated the nostalgic ridge town at the rate of a football field per second.
The film provides a deep sense of what the town was and who the people were prior to the fire – the red-shirted Clampers — a gold-miners organization– marching in a parade, the carefree children, most who knew no other life than their sheltered mountain town. The football team and the cheering fan-filled stands eerily capture the pride of the community. Life was simple then.
Howard ushers viewers through bittersweet rites of passage such as the high school graduation that took place amid the charred landscape for the fire-scarred seniors. He brings you to makeshift schools in neighboring areas where elementary students were disbursed after the fire.
In one day, more than 100 years of history perished, along with 85 human lives and countless pets and wildlife.
Howard chronologically masters displaying the collective sorrow that was experienced first-hand on Nov. 8, 2018, as well as the massive individual suffering. From the onset, Howard quite capably gives the viewer a full sense of how confusion turns to chaos.
Those who view the film are invited to feel the absolute urgency of a community brought to its knees and look into the eyes of true terror. He also takes the viewer through the painful process of the monumental feat of the beginning of rebuilding.
Though Howard often serves as a narrator in film or television, in this documentary, the people of Paradise tell their stories. Residents, fire personnel, law enforcement all share their personal pain.
This film is real, raw and riveting. It is a masterpiece in that it is as uncomfortable and harrowing as the fire itself.
It brings to light the long-term and underlying impacts of tragedy, such as families falling apart as a result of the strain and accentuation of a life-altering event.
Though the film is titled Rebuilding Paradise, it becomes apparent that the process is arduous and a long time in the making.
The former Paradise Mayor, Steve “Woody” Culleton, who bears a striking resemblance to Howard, is featured in the film. Culleton, who chose to rebuild, takes the viewer through his own frustrating process with bureaucracy to get the wheels turning in town hall.
It also becomes apparent that the town will never return to its roots of yesteryear. The people of Paradise are forever changed. They all seem to carry the same bewildered look.
One need not have experienced the Camp Fire, to watch and appreciate the accuracy and depth of this film. Ron Howard takes the viewer straight into the eye of the firestorm.
Rebuilding Paradise is rated PG-13. The National Geographic documentary is 95 minutes long.
Visit the official website to learn more about the movie, how you can get involved and valuable resources.
It can be rented from Virtual Cinemas benefiting independent movie theaters.
Ron Howard discusses making Rebuilding Paradise.
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Read about his career as an award-winning actor, screenwriter, director and producer.
Mandy Feder-Sawyer is a longtime award-winning journalist and professor of journalism at California State University, Chico. She was a Paradise, California resident at the time of the deadly Camp Fire, which she and her family fled, narrowly escaping with their lives. Her work can be found throughout many platforms including MediaNews Group; BBC; PBS; Entrepreneur Magazine; National Geographic Online; News & Review; and Pamplin Media, with stories ranging from how technology is used in the treatment of cancer and emerging rock bands to an in-depth portrait of a Middle Eastern student—born a boy, now a woman—struggling to find her place in the world.
As former Paradise resident, she has written about the Camp Fire as an insider.
“We are the lucky ones”– July 25, 2020
“ ‘The Fire’ will not define our new identities”– November 8, 2019
“Sifting Ashes” is a haunting tale of escape from Camp Fire– August 28, 2019
Mandy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.