Rebuilding Paradise Review – The Power of Hope

A home burns as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, California, on Thursday, 11/8/18 - REBUILDING PARADISE - Photo by Noah Berger
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National Geographic Documentary Films and Imagine Documentaries proudly announced their upcoming release on July 31, 2020, of REBUILDING PARADISE, a film by Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard. The documentary originally premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and later screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival and became a recent selection at AFI Docs.

Mauny Roethler clearing debris in Paradise, California – REBUILDING PARADISE – Photo by National Geographic/Pete Muller

Nearly every Californian is painfully familiar with the sad story of Paradise, a small, rural town in central California which became the victim of the Camp Fire on November 8, 2018. Audiences sat glued to their television screens as live feed from the devastating conflagration played on. The deadliest U.S. fire in 100 years – and the worst ever in California’s history – captured the public’s minds and hearts. And then the unthinkable happened. The 141-year-old town – active since the Gold Rush – was no more. Over 150,000 acres were destroyed; 1,300 people were missing; and eighty-five residents died. Over 50,000 people were displaced. Private homes, schools, public buildings, and hospitals were gone. Was hope gone too?

Steve “Woody” Culleton sits in a small storage trailer on his property in Paradise, CA, where he is rebuilding his home – REBUILDING PARADISE – Photo by National Geographic/Pete Muller

But REBUILDING PARADISE does not focus on the obvious losses from the raging fire. Instead, it tells the story of Paradise residents who would not give up. People who looked over their bucolic town – now resembling a war zone – and were determined to resurrect Paradise from the ashes. They lost most of the possessions – but not their memories – as they dug through the ruins of their material lives on the hillsides. Donning donated clothing and living in tents, shelters, and RVs, these proud, gritty, and indomitable folks formulated a goal – and stuck to their guns despite multiple setbacks. Like a phoenix, their new normal would rise from the ashes. While it might not be “the same Paradise,” it would be even better, reflecting the strong and resolute residents who held on to hope and never said uncle. In one year, their dream began to turn real.

Michelle John, the emeritus superintendent of Paradise Schools, as she packs her home and prepares to move away from the town in the wake of the fire – REBUILDING PARADISE – Photo by National Geographic/Pete Muller

REBUILDING PARADISE follows a chronology which offers some order to the chaos experienced by the principals. Ron Howard led a filmmaking team to Paradise and would spend a year with Paradise residents documenting their efforts to recover what they lost. Each small triumph is celebrated: the very first building to go up – the Gold Nugget Festival Parade – the first Easter egg hunt after the fire – the Paradise High School graduation. Each step in their slow but sure path to reach their goal allows the audience to share in their successes, one at a time. This is a broad and yet an intimate film about real people dealing with a real, live-altering catastrophe.

Officer Matt Gates sits for a portrait in the burned out area in Paradise, CA, to which he often responded to distress calls – REBUILDING PARADISE – Photo by National Geographic/Pete Muller

REBUILDING PARADISE is a powerful, hard-hitting true tale of human courage in the face of adversity. Skillfully directed by Ron Howard and produced by Brian Grazer, Howard, Xan Parker, Sara Bernstein, and Justin Wilkes, REBUILDING PARADISE is the perfect film for today’s chaos during a pandemic which is sweeping the country: a message of hope; a message reassuring everyone that all is never lost. Cinematography and editing are well above average – documenting the objective horror but never omitting the heart-warming personal moments which define humanity.

The Cox Family in front of their trailer in Magalia, CA – REBUILDING PARADISE – Photo by National Geographic/Lincoln Else

REBUILDING PARADISE will be released to select theaters (physical and digital) on July 31, 2020.


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