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'Rebuilding Paradise' 

Ron Howard's documentary on the Camp Fire heads to the (outdoor) big screen in Bend

I was born in 1980 at the Feather River Hospital in Paradise, California. My family had lived there since 1964 when my contractor grandfather built the Foster's Freeze and many other businesses across town. When I was eight, my grandma had me carve my name in wet cement in Paradise's beautiful Bille Park, a transgression I was stunned by as a kid.

A rare piece of history circa 1980s in Paradise's Bille Park. - PHOTO BY ROBERT MARQUEZ
  • Photo by Robert Marquez
  • A rare piece of history circa 1980s in Paradise's Bille Park.

I moved to Oregon for high school and didn't go back to Paradise until I was in my 30s, but the town always held a magical quality for me in my mind. It's like if the Pawnee, Indiana, from "Parks and Recreation" had more of a pioneer quality to it and everyone liked weed, booze and nature.

On Nov. 8, 2018, Paradise burned to the ground in the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. My childhood home and just about every place I had a connection to in the area was gone overnight. But I wasn't affected. Not really. I didn't lose everything. I didn't have to be evacuated, leaving behind animals and beloved memories to burn. I don't personally know a single one of the 85 fatalities of the fire. My connection is tangential.

Yet, still, when I heard Ron Howard was making a documentary about Paradise, I couldn't imagine sitting through it. My friends and family still in the area are happy that a documentary about their situation was getting made, but most of them aren't prepared to sit through it. A lot of the people I know from down there are still living in RVs and tents on the hollowed-out remains of their property. It's all still too fresh for people to reflect on.

I should have had more faith in Ron Howard, who has been slowly becoming a stronger filmmaker as he ages. While the opening of "Rebuilding Paradise" is filled with some of the most harrowing fire photography I've ever seen, along with multiple terrifying real-life escapes, the film isn't interested in sensationalism.

Instead, "Rebuilding Paradise" is about the resilience of the community and the individuals. It's about the school administrator who wants the high school seniors to graduate on their beloved football field. It's about the Paradise police officer who desperately and exhaustingly pushes himself to get a tree-lighting ceremony together for Christmas. It's about the town drunk who became mayor, who lost his house and just wants the permits to rebuild.

But the film isn't faux-inspirational claptrap, either. "Rebuilding Paradise" also focuses on the people who've given up and are done with Paradise. Watching the town verbally destroy a representative from PG&E (the primary culprits of the fire) in a city council meeting should feel like a moment of vindication, but instead feels exhausting and ugly. Even as Paradise rebuilds, the documentary is sober enough to admit there's really no coming back from this. You can rebuild the town to the exact specifications that it was on Nov. 7, and it still wouldn't really be the same.

It's a well-crafted documentary, beautifully directed and photographed, and hopefully the people who need to see it can and will. But I also wouldn't blame them if they choose not to. The Camp Fire isn't their collective past. It's their present. They still have nightmares about being surrounded by fire and by the pets they couldn't reach in time. I found myself crying at dozens of points across the film and I wasn't even there. Technically, the only thing I lost was an idea of what home is supposed to be.

When I went back to Paradise a few years ago, I made my family take me to Bille Park so I could see if my name was still carved in the cement. Walking around, I had trouble remembering exactly where it was, until I moved around some bushes near the bathrooms and found it, looking like it was carved in Precambrian times: "Jared '88." I don't know if it's still there after the fire and I'm not sure I want to know. In my head it's there. Maybe a little melted and stained with dried ash and grime, but still there.

Rebuilding Paradise
Dir. Ron Howard
Grade: B+
Friday, Aug. 7. 7:30pm
BendFilm Pop Up Drive-In
Corner of Shevlin-Hixon & Columbia
$35 per vehicle

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