Imagine Entertainment’s new (as of 2018) documentary arm has hit the ground running with a number of films produced and more in the pipeline. “Rebuilding Paradise,” however, seems like an odd fit for their slate. Turns out that Ron Howard’s mother-in-law lived her last years in Paradise, California, the site of the terrifying one-day inferno of the Camp Fire that incinerated the whole town in November 2018. Sitting in a packed theatre at Sundance 2020, I was not prepared for the first minutes of this film. Nor will I ever forget them. Thanks to the prevalence of cell phones, the film opens with a long montage of video footage shot by residents as they hurriedly fled their town. There was no warning, there was no time. A conflagration descended in the morning and at a pace impossible to fathom, engulfed the town in flames. I can’t fully explain it. You just have to watch it.
After that attention-getting opening, the film settles into the massive question of “what next?” We see the immediate impact the sudden displacement causes, you wonder if it makes sense to rebuild in an area prone to future fires and then we’re introduced to various townspeople. For me, the film really hits its stride when it finds the local superintendent of schools. Her story captures the full arc of loss, a never give up spirit and the many personal and professional costs such an event visits upon its victims, physically and mentally.
In Indiana, wildfires are mostly a foreign concept. They happen elsewhere. This film does a great job of bringing you right into the middle of one and its aftermath. I recommend this film and assure you that as terrible as the fire was, the film’s bigger and more inspiring message lies in showing us the triumph of the human spirit.