Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 05, 2021 5:46 am 
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Causes and prevention of destructive California wildfires from a Londoner's perspective

Lucy Walker is a filmmaker from London living in California and identifies as such in frequent voiceovers to this new film. The film is about fire. It is more comprehensive but less elegant than Ron Howard's National Geographic film Rebuilding Paradise (2020) from last year. (There's also a new one about young prisoners used by Cal Fire, Fireboys.) Ron concentrated his terrifying, grim footage of the destruction of Paradise in the Camp Fire to a few minutes at the outset. The rest of his documentary focuses on who stays, and who rebuilds. Lucy Walker devotes more footage to the Paradise horror and its harrowing and ugly aftermath. She makes you stop and think: what if my whole house and everything in it were destroyed in minutes?

But this is still only the beginning. Walker has multiple subjects; even so, her film seems too long. But while she seems unable to decide how to relate her coverage of Malibu and the Woolsey Fire and Paradise and the Camp Fire (both started November 8, 2018) - leaning more and more toward Paradise - Bring Your Own Brigade has illuminating (if prolix and repetitious) discussion we all need about the real causes of these fires and our future prospects of preventing them - and what fire means in the world and in nature.

I wound up a bit confused by Bring Your Own Brigade. Indeed even the title is confusing. It seems to refer to the wealth of some Malibu residents, which is so great they can afford to finance private firefighting teams (their "own brigade") to save their own properties from destruction. But this is not the main drift of the film and leaves one wondering why it was chosen as the name of it. Nonetheless, however messy this film is compared to Ron Howard's neatly organized one, this is a stimulating, searching exploration of a huge subject.

Now, is global warming the main culprit or isn't it? Walker makes clear enough that there are many factors. Her film is excellent in the experts she provides, with very different orientations, who talk about this. One thing explained in detail is that the location of both Paradise and Malibu sets them up to be exposed to fires every few years, or at least every decade or so - perhaps now increasingly often. One factor a scoffing Malibu architect resident points out is "dumb" construction. His house with its sound use of materials and design did not ignite, while it's surrounded by dozens of houses, ranch style or Tuscan villas or whatever, that burned to the ground because their architecture was chosen for purely emotional reasons and they were very badly made for a fire zone.

Similarly, surroundings and detailing of houses are willfully ill chosen in places that have seen repeated destruction by fire. We see the town of Paradise have a meeting in which citizens and the city counsel members all vote to reject every single one of the fire department's recommendations to protect their houses, the most important one being a five-foot clear zone around their buildings. Flowers and bushes were too dear for them to protect themselves from their house burning down. Doing away with gutters and overhanging roofs, both accoutrements that cause houses to ignite - was also summarily rejected.

It is incidentally a clear contrast politically between Malibu, with its properties averaging $3 million in value, and which is liberal democratic, and the relatively low-income Paradise, average house value $200,000, and which is predominantly Trump-supporting republican - some of whom definitely don't believe that climate change is a real thing. This relates to the town meeting: Paradise residents have a self-destructive obsession with "individualism" against the recommendations of authorities and experts which Lucy Walker states herself unsympathetic to and uncomprehending of as a European. When you have a population who think individual liberty enables them to reject scientific fact, what can you do?

Another major factor in the case of Paradise is what Walker's film shows to be a whole complicated system of disastrous and dangerous land and woodland management by government and timber companies, notably clearcutting by the huge Sierra Pacific Industries, that led to increasingly dense forestation of smaller trees and depletion of fire resistant large trees and shrubbery that made all the land around a tinderbox. After each fire the tendency has been to go in and replant more young trees and create denser forestation.

The film contrasts the wrongheaded forest management with traditional Native American use of fire to remove periodically dangerous fire-starting underbrush. Historical background is provided to show the white man rejected fire-protection fires by Native Americans from when they first encountered them. The Gold Rush beginnings of the California land boom, it's explained, brought policies of careless, impatient, destructive land development that fostered fire danger. On the other hand, there are scientific voices here to state sophisticated understanding of the eternally important positive role played in the ecosystem of fire.

An important footnote is included to show the destructive effect on firefighters like Montecito Fire Department supervisor Maeve Juarez, of doing their jobs in the high-fire environment, which destroyed marriages, led to major burnout and PTSD even after a period of heroic leadership (Ron Howard's film, which focuses more on the individual Paradise leaders who kept things going after the fire, also shows this). PG&E, the utility company, is a favorite culprit (it has pledged to bury a vast quantity of wiring underground, since it was the overhead wiring that fed sparks). But a Paradise resident points out PG&E also made the place possible, by bringing in electricity to a hard-to-reach location; without PG&E, he says, they'd not have been there at all.

Zeke Lunder, a geographer who specializes in wildfire and forestry, importantly declares early in the consideration of causes that Paradise would have burned down with or without global warming. But isn't global warming a primary reason for the bigger and bigger fires - and their occurrence worldwide today? This isn't made clear in Walker's film; more information on the worldwide situation would have been welcome. Despite its thoroughness, this documentary doesn't quite get to the bottom of some of the biggest issues or give climate change its proper weight.

One reason for its straying from such nagging questions as the role of global warming, apart from its being so complex as to require a whole film unto itself, is perhaps that, much like Ron Howard but with a focus on different people, Lucy Walker in quite enamored of individual personalities, seemingly more and more for their own sake. Foremost among these is a tall, jovial man called Brad Weldon, whose wife has recently died and who cares for his apparently bedridden ninety-year-old blind mother, feeding her multiple marijuana cookies to keep her successfully blissed out. Brad's outdoor, community style marriage to a neighbor ends the film. This is, indeed, an irresistible portrait of life going on and life being affirmed - he even says "I love life." Brad's house survived the destruction of all around, and he established what he calls a "mini-commune" of homeless Paradise residents after the fire in a gathering of campers whose social life centers at Brad's house. Malibu has good people after its fire too, but doesn't quite provide such examples of community and folksiness. The rich survive; but will they prevail?

Bring Your Own Brigade, Debuted at Sundance Jan. 2021; apparently no other festival showings. (See the Hollywood Reporter review by Leslie Felperin; also reviewed at Sundance in Variety and more critically in IndieWire.) US release Aug. 6, 2021 prior to digital streaming on Paramount+ on Aug. 20 by CBSN Films.

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