In a Bay Nature magazine essay published earlier this month about what Californians should learn from recent years of devastating wildfires, Don Hankins poses the central question and context:
Where did we go wrong, and what can we do differently to live in this land? To recognize that fire is the law of the land is to recognize that it is part of the laws of nature. As sure as water flows down a stream, the tides rise and fall, or an acorn drops from the oak, it is expected that fire will and should graze the landscape. In the basics of fire science, fire requires fuel, oxygen, and heat to exist. The frequency and behavior of fire are driven by the fuel, weather, and topography.
Hankins’ call parallels filmmaker Lucy Walker’s genuine discovery that caps her newest documentary Bring Your Own Brigade, which is receiving its Sundance premiere this weekend. For Walker, who has had 10 films premiere at Sundance including two that have been nominated for the Academy Award, this project was unprecedented for personal reasons.
A Londoner who had relocated to California, she initially was convinced that climate change was the main driver behind the increasing frequency of large wildfires. As she notes, the last big fire which most Londoners knew of in their city was the Great Fire of 1666.
The 127-minute film is as riveting in the last two-thirds of this journey of discovery as it is in the first 45 minutes where she provides the extraordinary eyewitness vantage of the perils of two large wildfires that started on Nov. 8, 2018 in different parts of the state. One was the Woolsey Fire in and near Malibu, which destroyed more than $1.6 billion in property and left three people dead, and the other was the Camp Fire in northern California which destroyed most of the town of Paradise and left 85 people dead.
As she recalls in an interview with The Utah Review, Walker initially had set out to do a straightforward documentary short about the Thomas Fire in California and the implications of climate change’s role. The fire, which started in December 2017, was, at the time, the largest event of its kind in California’s recorded history but it was soon overshadowed by the Mendocino Complex Fire in 2018.
Walker, known for her character-driven emphasis in documentary storytelling, believed that the best approach at the outset was for her and the production team to become embedded with firefighters. On Nov. 8, 2018, as news from Paradise and Malibu arrived, documenting the unforgettable perils and tragedies on site would set the stage for surprising epiphanies not just for her but also for the residents, firefighters, survivors, corporate executives and public officials.
We hear Walker’s narration throughout the film. “I had put myself in the movie and I had never done that before,” Walker says. “Normally I hide behind the camera and I was incredibly anxious about being so exposed and letting people into my own life.”
“I had never expected to become a much bigger and more personal story,” she adds. “Capturing the places and the aftermath helped me to understand the clues that would follow in the investigation.”
In a fictional narrative, one would see constructed sets and CGI effects to replicate scenes of massive destruction and perils. However, the realities shown in the first third of Bring You Own Brigade strip away every wisp of comfort that humans could quickly regain control over an event that had become overwhelmingly ferocious and relentless in its intensity. Walker shows how firefighting battalions, extensively trained and equipped to battle wildlife fires, had no other choice but to throw away all they had learned previously in order to save lives and help people escape.
As the film transitions into the aftermath and investigation, the story encompasses the voices of everyone on the spectrum and the enlightenment and elucidation which unfold are as transfixing as they are in coping with the grief, stress and trauma of such events. There are as many similarities as there are differences in the minds and opinions of residents in the two communities that are focused upon in the film: Paradise, where homes on average are in the $200,000 price range and Malibu, where the average price for residential properties runs $3.5 million. These counterpoints and similarities become evident in scenes of community meetings and the response of local elected officials.
For Walker, getting out of her bubble led her to a 360-degree view of the holistic challenges and research, which she says ends up being only really the tip of the iceberg (in her words), of understanding the wildfires which have become so large and frequent as to dominate the news cycle not just during the summer but in other seasons as well. Few had anticipated that fires on the scale, as depicted in the film, would occur so late in the fall. Indeed, climate change can be viewed as a “performance enhancer” for wildfires but there is so much more to contemplate.
Walker introduces viewers to an expansive, rich lexicon from pyrogeographers, fire ecologists, firefighters and Indigenous peoples along with terms related to Wildland Urban Interface, the shortsightedness of fire suppression strategies, the risks of losing insurance coverage, the value of cultural burning and the positive impacts of proactive fire management. She also offers an enlightening social commentary about ways to improve the civic discourse and focus on community solutions – a challenge not just for wildfires but also for mitigating and controlling the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and for trying to find common ground on the issue of climate change. It becomes clear that if we accept the premise of working long term on climate change, then we can focus more immediately on the short-term changes that can address wildfires and prevent losses on the scale that occurred during the Paradise and Malibu fires. Even a simple move like adding fire ecologists and experts on pyrogeography, firefighting and fire containment to urban and community planning boards can be a potentially significant step. Truly, this film should be mandated viewing for any environmental beat reporter including those who cover forest and land management and wildfires. The vocabulary presented in the film stays clear of being criticized as politically loaded in advocating for a specific cause or reason.
The manner in which Walker invites viewers is why the portrayal of the aftermath and investigation in the remaining 80 minutes of the film percolates with humanizing, genuinely emotional passion and depth. She accomplishes this by anchoring the straightforward narrative with the straight-talking Brad Weldon in Paradise, whose generous spirit and fellowship provide touchpoints, which reverberate throughout the film. And, she achieves a small coup that would be the envy of any documentary filmmaker who has ever tried to get a corporate executive to respond on camera. The moment when a Sierra Pacific executive explains why his company is revising its timber industry management strategy is yet another notable indicator of how it is possible to change one’s perspective after a disaster of such harrowing proportions.
Bring Your Own Brigade emerges as an exemplar for filmmakers who are thinking about documentaries focusing on climate change. It will be films such as Walker’s latest projects that strive for a holistic breadth and depth of sociological perspective that will bring the most impactful stories dealing with climate change to the screen.
Bring Your Own Brigade is one of three documentaries premiering at Sundance this year that received a fiscal sponsorship from the Utah Film Center. Geralyn Dreyfous, the center’s cofounder, also was executive producer through Gamechanger Films for Walker’s latest project.
For more information about festival tickets and film, see the Sundance website.