In films such as “Wasteland” and “Countdown to Zero,” Lucy Walker has never entirely believed that something that could have a profound impact on the earth that isn’t in some way related to the conditions that have been created by its inhabitants. So if someone was bound to make a provocative film about the recent surge of wildfires in California, it was bound to be her, so much so that she was already in the midst of gathering materials for such a project when the Camp Fire in Paradise and the Woolsey Fire burned up the West Coast in the fall of 2018. The lead time gave Walker a unique position to capture the response to the fires, but as she notes in the remarkable “Bring Your Own Brigade,” it’s not as if it was entirely unpredictable after a number of factors conspired to make it far more difficult for such blazes to be contained.
Walker follows the money rather than the flames in her latest film, acknowledging the ongoing devastation that the communities in Malibu and Paradise have dealt with in the wake of the fires, but carefully avoiding the experiential “you-are-there” feeling of other films concerning the same subject when one shouldn’t be standing in awe of nature’s fury, but instead wondering about the root of its anger. There’s plenty of first-hand cell phone footage of the mad scramble to evacuate and jaw dropping footage of ash falling from the sky, but the director never stays in one place for too long, showing the interconnected set of issues that have become a recipe for disaster, often in spite of the best efforts of people trying their best to manage what’s within their reach. While climate change seems like an obvious culprit, “Bring Your Own Brigade” digs deeper to find both a lack of resources to fight fires and a profit incentive for a practice known as clear-cutting in the logging industry, creating hotter and drier patches of land around areas where trees stand strong that essentially provide kindling to large-scale fires.
Although Walker collects plenty of historical and scientific data to back this up, the film is smart enough to reckon with the fact that the people currently most prone to live in areas where the potential for fires are at their highest are also the ones least likely to take any preventative measures when they see it as an incursion against the liberty they seek living so far off the grid. “Bring Your Own Brigade” actually admires such rugged individualism, finding its main throughline in Paradise resident Brad Weldon, who isn’t one to believe in climate change yet clearly won’t let harm come to his blind mother in any form, and respects where everyone comes from enough to offer sensible ideas about where things could go. The film radiates intelligence around the large systemic issues involved without feeling condescending or overwhelming, in no small part to Walker’s occasionally wry and always personable narration where it feels like she’s in conversation with what’s going on on screen rather than acting above it.
“Bring Your Own Brigade” observes so many looking at their life in a new way after their homes and livelihoods were been destroyed that it only seems fair that the film asks the audience to look at wildfires in a different way too. You can only hope its ideas will spread fast enough to counter them, and in considering human behavior as sharply as scientific evidence, Walker has made something extraordinarily engaging in all aspects.
“Bring Your Own Brigade” will screen once more at the Sundance Film Festival for a 24-hour window starting on January 31st at 8 am MT.