'Bring Your Own Brigade': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Bring Your Own Brigade
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Passionate, personal and profoundly moving.

Writer-director Lucy Walker casts an immigrant's eye over California's catastrophic wildfires for this essayistic documentary.

Bring Your Own Brigade isn't the first cinematic report on the Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, California, in 2018, or even the first one to screen at Sundance (Ron Howard's Rebuilding Paradise played at the festival in 2020). It almost certainly won't be the last film about the devastation wrought by uncontrolled wildfires, particularly in California, by a long shot.

But it's probably the smartest, most interesting documentary so far on the subject as it adroitly balances views of survivors, first responders and observers while sifting in an accessible way through the complex science that causes such fires, focusing primarily on the Camp Fire as well as the Woolsey Fire that ravaged Malibu around the same time.

An immigrant from Britain to Los Angeles, Lucy Walker (Waste Land, The Crash Reel), the film's writer-director, just-heard interviewer and narrator throughout, diverges from her usual invisible, verité approach to play Virgil as she guides the viewer, Dante-like, into the inferno. But what she uncovers isn't a pat moral schema where those who lost homes in the fires are blameless victims and the baddies are obvious litigation targets like power companies. Nor is the amorphous, ineffable villain that is climate change — which ultimately, if understandably, gets most of the blame for every natural disaster these days — the sole cause. The problem is much more nuanced and intricate than that, Walker finds.

Thanks to an eyes-on-the-prize devotion to clarity, Walker and her editing team in particular (led by Christy Denes, Wes Lipman and Dan Oberle) guide the viewer through the morass of characters, detail, archive and original footage to present an exemplary piece of explanatory, polemical but not partisan documentary making.

Describing herself as someone from London, U.K. — which, she says rather oddly, hasn't had a fire since 1666 (what about the Blitz? The Grenfell tower block fire in 2017?) — who recently moved to California, Walker notes how her interest in the subject of wildfires was prompted by seeing the Thomas Fire of 2017 burning vast swathes of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. It had been among the top five largest California wildfires until yet bigger, meaner ones came along. Indeed, the way these morbid rankings keep being updated every fire season just goes to show how dire the problem is.

Walker's decision to focus instead largely on the Camp and Woolsey Fires seems to have less to do with statistical superlatives than timing, and the fact that these two different conflagrations offer both interesting contrasts and parallels. The Camp Fire that practically wiped out the town of Paradise in northerly Butte County, still the most destructive and deadliest in California's history (according to fire.ca.gov), mostly affected a semi-rural, exurban community. On the other hand, the Woolsey Fire, given it ravaged Malibu, affected some of the richest people and most expensive property in the state. In fact, some residents are so wealthy, like a just-seen-in-archive-footage Kim Kardashian, that they can afford to pay for their own private team of firefighters — the "bring your own brigade" of the title.

The director and her crews cultivate relationships with select survivors from both events. Of course, all of them bear the scars of trauma, bereavement and unfathomable loss, and the film treats them with proper respect, empathy and compassion as we watch them trying to get back on their feet or, better yet, performing small and large acts of kindness for others. Paradise resident Brad Weldon, one of the film's more colorful characters who gets the lion's share of screen time, comes across as a genial local hero for taking in homeless neighbors because his place — which he shares with his bedridden, perpetually stoned blind mother — survived most unscathed. But he's not necessarily treated as any more noble than an architect Walker meets, who cooks for his fellow homeless Malibu residents in a shelter, or indeed firefighters like Maeve Juarez, who talks about the trauma she and her colleagues face on a regular basis.

The film's more subjective style comes into its own when the action literally stops in its tracks with a freeze frame as the director takes in that some of her newfound friends, up in Paradise in particular (part of a staunchly Republican district), don't even believe that climate change is a fundamental threat to humanity, let alone the leading factor in the fire. But it's to her and the film's credit that it goes on to speak to scientists, particularly those who understand fire's place in the ecosystem, and discovers how complicated the situation really is.

Yes, of course, climate change plays a part in these conflagrations, but as Zeke Lunder, a geographer who specializes in wildfire and forestry, says "Paradise was going to burn whether there was climate change or not." The way the landscape around Paradise has been managed for years, especially by clearcutting-loving timber megacorp Sierra Pacific Industries, has massively increased the likelihood of wildfires. One of the film's most fascinating contributions is to elucidate how logging fits into the equation, a subject that's received way less attention than, say, PG&E's poor maintenance of the electrical lines in the area around Paradise.

Likewise, the scope spins out beyond these particular fires to take in a broader historical perspective, juiced by insightful contributions from a number of interviewees — particularly the always pithy geographer Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, who offers a very different view compared to the hard scientists. Also welcome is the attention paid to how the indigenous people of California worked with, not against fire, to manage the land — which, if done right, could offer a best practice that might reduce the incidence of wildfires in the future. Sadly, the film makes it clear that it will be an uphill struggle to get such measures introduced widely. One of the most depressing parts of the doc is seeing how building regulations recommended by firefighters to reduce the risk of property destruction all get rejected at a town hall meeting by the community itself.

Former President Trump's name is not even mentioned once in the film — not even his notorious trip to the Camp Fire site where he mistakenly called the town of Paradise "Pleasure" and recommended the forests should be raked the way the Finnish supposedly rake theirs. However, the culture war that continues to rage in his name is palpable throughout, and it's hard not to feel despairing that it's all part of the same massive complex of intractable civil disunity, misinformation and distrust leading to disastrous consequences, like the COVID-19 pandemic. Some fires look like they'll never go out.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)  
With: Lucy Walker, Brad Weldon, Trina Cunningham, Don Hankins. Steve Pyne, Maeve Juarez, Zeke Lunder, Mike Davis
Production: A Topic Studios presentation in association with XTR and Artemis Rising of a Tree Tree Tree, Good ‘n Proper Production
Director/screenwriter: Lucy Walker
Producers: Holly Becker, Julian Cautherley, Lyn Davis Lear, Martha Eidsness Mitchell, Lucy Walker
Executive producers: Geralyn Dreyfous, Lynda Weinman, Michael Bloom, Maria Zuckerman. Ryan Heller, Lisa Leingang, Regina Scully, Jamie Wolf, Bill Benenson, Laurie Benenson, Melony Lewis, Adam Lewis, Jena King, Tony Hsieh, Bryn Mooser, Kathryn Everett
Co-Producers: Jennie Bedusa, Christine Connor
Directors of photography: Battiste Fenwick, Carmen Delaney, Grant Smith
Editors: Christy Denes, Wes Lipman, Dan Oberle
Music supervisor: Chris Douridas
Sales: Cinetic

127 minutes