The sound of wind is rarely as sinister as it is at the beginning of "Rebuilding Paradise," Ron Howard's harrowing and heartrending new documentary. The loud, 40-mph gusts we hear are a grim omen, and they soon merge with other noises -- anxious radio chatter, screaming sirens, the crackle of flames, the pop-pop of exploding tires -- to form a chorus of fast-mounting dread. Through it all we hear a succession of human voices, trying to remain steady but finally abandoning any pretense of calm: "Please, we need your help, Lord," a woman prays. "I'm scared," another sobs. "I'm scared."
You will share her fear. These opening moments return us to Nov. 8, 2018, the day the Camp fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history, destroyed the Butte County town of Paradise. The on-the-ground footage we see is as awful as what we hear: As flames lick at driveways and engulf crumbling buildings, as embers rain down on fleeing vehicles, we seem trapped in a conflagration so mighty and all-consuming that the entire world has turned black and orange. But all is not lost: Suddenly we're in a car that passes through a thick cloud of smoke and ash and then emerges, miraculously, into daylight on the other side. A clear blue sky has never looked so welcome.
That moment of hope is fleeting but important. Filmed over the year that followed the deadly blaze, "Rebuilding Paradise" is about redemption as well as destruction, which you might guess from both the title and Howard's well-known affinity for uplift. But while the filmmaker keeps his eyes peeled for every possible shred of good news in the wake of disaster, he has little interest in peddling easy inspiration; the stakes are too colossal, the devastation too raw. When the Camp fire swept through Paradise, it left 85 people dead, destroyed 14,000 homes and displaced tens of thousands of residents. For many of them, there was simply no going back. But others, some of them profiled in this movie, saw no choice but to return -- and remain.
One of those historic small towns much idealized for their beauty, close-knit community and idyllic way of life, Paradise commanded intense loyalty among those who called it home. But apart for some brief early footage, Howard doesn't spend a lot of time delving into the past or showing us the town as it once existed. Staying firmly in the present tense, he and his camera crew spend a lot of time following their subjects, some of whom have temporarily relocated to trailer homes in nearby Chico.
A few high schoolers, returning to what used to be their houses, marvel at metal bed frames and other abandoned possessions that have burned almost beyond recognition. A man points out buildings, including a hospital, that no longer exist. In effect, the filmmakers make us imagine what Paradise used to be by sifting through the wreckage of what it has become.
They also adopt the familiar strategy of telling a sweeping, panoramic story through a handful of individuals, using the faces of a few to represent the travails of the many. Given the sheer scale of the destruction, it's a reductive but effective tactic, especially in terms of providing an overall snapshot of municipal recovery. We meet a police officer, Matt Gates, who breaks down while recalling a woman's narrow escape during the blaze, and whose work -- dramatically redefined in the wake of the tragedy -- takes its toll on his family life. We also meet former Paradise mayor Steve "Woody" Culleton, who was once the self-described "town drunk" before he sobered up and became an elected official, a turnaround narrative that gently underscores the town's own hopes of regeneration.
The most engaging figure is school superintendent Michelle John, who determinedly goes about the daunting task of providing for the young students of Paradise, many of whom are now homeless. A scene of John comforting students in makeshift classrooms hits especially close to home; as an image of American schools being uprooted, it may remind you, as it reminded me, of the more recent, farther-reaching crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Rebuilding Paradise" was finished and first shown at this year's Sundance Film Festival well before the pandemic erupted, and as a result it doesn't address the myriad ways in which the coronavirus has hindered and even reversed Paradise's recovery. (A sequel or two may be in order.) As the film makes clear, the town was facing enough obstacles already, from the gutting of infrastructure to the toxic chemicals that were released during the fire, poisoning the water supply. And that's not even mentioning the enormous financial burdens and the incalculable trauma suffered by those who lost loved ones, homes, memories and an entire way of life.
Howard has made documentaries before (among them last year's "Pavarotti"), and he also notably played with fire in the 1991 drama "Backdraft." His work here is solid, sensitive and unobtrusive. He and his collaborators (they include cinematographer Lincoln Else and editor M. Watanabe Milmore) find the stirring drama in quotidian moments, from a bittersweet Christmas celebration to the many tense meetings where the people of Paradise try to figure out a way forward. A lot of those meetings, one of which is attended by Erin Brockovich, are focused on legal action against Pacific Gas & Electric for the role its equipment played in starting the blaze. (Earlier this year, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the Camp fire.)
But the documentary also points to sustained drought, rising temperatures and other environmental conditions that essentially cleared a path for fires to wipe out Paradise, as well as other communities in the future. Howard sounds a queasy note of alarm, placing the Camp fire in the context of the recent Australian bushfires, the floods that have decimated South Asia and other deadly disasters exacerbated by climate change. When a Paradise resident gives a speech at film's end and declares, "We aren't alone in this," her ostensibly reassuring words can't help but sound like a warning.