Rebuilding Paradise




A film that gives hope in our challenging times.

Rebuilding Paradise

In recent years the veteran director Ron Howard has unexpectedly added a number of documentaries to the long list of fictional titles that made his name. With Rebuilding Paradise he surprises us again because until now his films in this genre have been connected to music, be it hip-hop (Modern America, 2013), The Beatles - Eight Days A Week (2016) or Pavarotti (2019). With Rebuilding Paradise he enters a fresh area. In 2018 the township of Paradise in Butte County, California and its 24,000 residents fell victim to a devastating camp fire. Such events regularly make news headlines at the time and feature in on-the-spot reports on TV news programmes. Howard, however, went for something very different by taking cameras to Paradise so that his film, in addition to incorporating footage taken at the time of the fire, could concentrate on the next twelve months and thus portray a community reconstructing itself.


What has resulted is a work which, after a prologue of strongly dramatic images taken on 8th November 2018, proceeds to introduce us to individuals who will play a part in restoring the town. Some appear in passing including representatives of the police and fire departments and we hear from a number of local students, their school graduation on campus in 2019 being a marker in the film's closing scenes of just how far the restoration had come by then. But even more central to the film are three individuals who had key roles to play: Steve 'Woody' Culleton, quite ready to acknowledge that in the early 1980s he had been the town drunk, was 74 years old and the mayor when the fire occurred; Michelle John was the superintendent of schools (of the nine in the area eight were damaged and four actually destroyed); Matt Gates was a police officer, married with two children.


By concentrating on these people along with other residents and by proceeding in chronological order and moving in consequence from evacuation through to decisions on whether or not to return, Rebuilding Paradise is essentially a portrait of the strength of the human spirit when it comes to survival (in this instance given the location it is seen as something related to the old pioneering spirit that marked the Gold Rush days). There are passages in this film about the cause of the fire and the efforts to make a company admit some responsibility, but the restoration of Paradise is always the central theme. As such this documentary does a good, straightforward job and, although inevitably rooted in one place at one time, the film concludes with reminders of other tragedies around the world including some caused by fire. This ensures that the heartfelt tribute paid to the people of Paradise never becomes nationalistic in character but properly wide in scope. Indeed, the fact that this film is appearing now when the whole world is confronted by Covid-19 makes it a welcome and timely reminder of how so many human beings have it in them to survive the most tragic of circumstances.




Featuring  Steve 'Woody' Culleton, Matt Gates, Michelle John, Erin Brockovich, Carly Ingersoll, Justin Cox, Kayla Cox, Phil John, Tenille Gates, Marcus Nelson, Krystie Young, Brandon Burke, Zach Boston, James Gallagher.


Dir Ron Howard, Pro Sara Bernstein, Brian Grazer, Xan Parker, Ron Howard and Justin Wilkes, Ph Lincoln Else, Ed M. Watanabe Milmore with Gladys Murphy, Music Lorne Balfe and Hans Zimmer.


Imagine Entertainment/National Geographic Films-Dogwoof Pictures.
91 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 25 September 2016. Available in cinemas. Cert. 12A.