Two cites, two fires, and rising temperatures flare up in Bring Your Own Brigade, an American documentary film by Lucy Walker, following the aftermath of the 2018 California Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire that destroyed Paradise and Malibu, California.
Walker and her team provide an earnest mediative exploration on how our institutions, businesses, and our systems of structure have been failing us long before the climate crisis. What feels like an open and shut case, with Global Warming being the sole factor determining the intensity of these fires, Walker’s investigative journalism reveals a complex tangle of roots. The documentary shines a light on how to mitigate the coming harm with sensible governing and a holistic understanding of the world we live in is and how better way is possible, but instead we engineer our own undoing by choosing to ignore the hard truths. A truth I find harder and harder to ignore in the times we are living in.
The film opens with the harrowing experience of the actual 2018 Camp Fire. We hear 911 calls, watch the film footage of the fire raging around survivors, and listen to first-hand accounts of those who survived. Each one of the testimonies ring with the same sentiment, “how could this happen?” and that’s where this documentary shines its brightest. A young woman recounts the moment she tried to desperately convince her mother to come with her to get away from the fire. The quiver of her voice sinks in as she explains how her mother wouldn’t leave and she had to make the decision to leave on her own. The camera lingers as we see her standing near the rubble of her home and the last resting place of her mother.
Walker is unwilling to just allow us to sit comfortable and far away from the tragedy we only saw in aerial footage from the news. We are placed front and center — seeing every tired eye, exhausted breath, and hopeful smile in detail. It’s through this empathetic lens, the documentary’s pacing, and an understanding the people who survived these fires has the viewer hoping they succeed in rebuilding. It lays the groundwork on how heartbreaking it is to see how hard it is to pick up the pieces.
Malibu and Paradise are seen as opposites of the same coin, both are predominately white but with drastically different political views. Trump’s name is never uttered in the film, however, the culture war he helped permeate is on full display in the documentary. It is hard not to feel like the world is doomed when solution after solution to make sure this catastrophe doesn’t happen again is met with unfeasibility or outright rejection.
The documentary pulls no punches when it comes to showing how much of the destruction isn’t just human error but instead human avoidance and protection of capital. Whether residents in Malibu are shown using their money to hire personal fire fighters to fight for their homes, status symbols that are poorly designed for the climate in which they were built, or the residents of Paradise rejecting the fire protection guidelines because that would mean they would be out-priced to live there, money is shown as a driving force for these catastrophes. We are shown humanity both in its hope and in its flaws.
The only difficulty I had with the film is how little time is given to the history and empathy of Native Americans in California and their practice of using controlled fires to help protect the land. It would be enlightening to see how mainstream society and governance could incorporate these tried and true methods. There is a beautiful segment that inspires a sense of hope and rejuvenation of interest of these practices from those outside of Native American culture, but it is only given 30 minutes as the documentary is wrapping up. I wish there was more time to weave in just how much Native Americans and their cultural practices have been shunned, criminalized, and erased from history, and how they are treated now as more and more people are coming to reflect how controlled burns assist in protecting the land.
The movie does a good job letting us know what type of solutions there are but does play short of outright taking a full stance on just what Walker’s conclusion of the right step to take next is. There are right answers but not one alone really fixes it, when we have so many factors to account for. When those in power have no real incentive to make these decisions at all, or make it easier for residents to prepare, and when companies have no real incentive to change their profit margins, one thing does become clear. We have to really rely on each other to start making the changes we need to survive whatever comes next and work together towards a better future and build the bridges that will makes us stronger and keep us safe.
Bring Your Own Brigade is an impressive documentary that reflects on the horrors of a world that is approaching quickly with a sense of hope, that we can correct the worst of it if we band together to fix past mistakes. I hope it’s not too late for us to realize it.
Bring Your Own Brigade premiers in theaters August 6, 2021 and available on CBSN and Paramount+ August 20, 2021.