Bring Your Own Brigade


This used to be my house.

(2021) Documentary (CBS News) Marily Woodhouse, Brad Weldon, Lucy Walker, Derek Rickmers, Lauren Gill, Norma Weldon, Maeve Juarez, Char Mullen, Marshall Mullen, Mike Zucolili, Malcolm North, Steve Pyne, Zeke Lunder, Dave Jones, Kristen Shive, Chad Hanson, Mark Emerson, Mike Davis, Greg Bolin, Chris Brandini, Rick Halsey, Jim Broshears, Jody Jones. Directed by Lucy Walker

 

As I write this, the Dixie fire is burning out of control in California. Another hot summer, another spate of wildfires are scorching the West. This has beome the new normal. But does it need to be?

Oscar-winning documentarian Lucy Walker, a British transplant now living in the United States, asks that very question. She opens this two hour long documentary with footage of wildfires from around the world, including heartbreaking footage of a baby koala in Australia burning alive until saved by human hands. The animal’s piteous screams of pain are not likely to be forgotten to anyone who sees this movie anytime soon.

Then we see the human side. Walker had been in Paradise doing research on the 2017 Thomas fire that had nearly leveled the town when the Camp fire broke out, as did the Woolsey fire in Malibu. Walker had crews in both locations and was there when 88 lives were lost and thousands of structures consumed. The Camp fire remains the deadliest forest fire in the history of California.

Hearing the 911 calls of panicked people in cars and in homes, knowing that they’re about to burn alive, is absolutely devastating. While some of the folks you hear did actually manage to escape, not all of them did. It is much like hearing the 911 call of Melissa Doi from the 83rd floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The footage of burning cars and fire all around the vehicles, taken with cell phones by the survivors of the fire, would put Dante to shame.

But while Walker early on says that the movie is about hope, and it might be hard to find at the beginning. However, she examines the issues of the underlying causes of these fires and while climate change is certainly a culprit, it is by no means the only one. Logging companies planting new new trees too close together cause fires to spread further and faster; the refusal to use controlled burns to help cut down the flammable material in forests, and infrastructure (power lines that are poorly maintained, and in the case of the Camp fire, were directly responsible for the fire) maintenance inadequate to what is needed as well as homeowners failing to clean their rain gutters, leaving dry tinder in proximity to their roofs.

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching thing about the documentary is what happened in Paradise afterwards. While Ron Howard’s Rebuilding Paradise showed a heroic side of the community (and Walker dutifully trots out Barry Weldon, a resident caring for his blind mother whose house was spared and who then put up homeless neighbors in his home), we see here firefighting professionals making a number of recommendations to help avoid the mass destruction that occurred in 2018. The city council, spurred on by angry citizens of Paradise, voted every one of them down. Every. One.

Then again, many of the folks in Paradise, given only minutes to gather belongings and flee, went immediately for their guns. Eyewitnesses report the ammo left behind going off like a war zone during the fire. One can draw parallels between the refusal to accept sensible precautions in the guise of asserting personal freedom by the citizens of Paradise to the current stance of those refusing to get vaccinated against a deadly pandemic. It turns out that we, as a species, are pretty much a bunch of morons.

The film is currently playing in select theaters around the country. Subscribers to CBSN and Paramount Plus will be able to see the movie on those services beginning August 20th.

REASONS TO SEE: Human denial is both fascinating and horrifying. Spectacular footage of the Camp fire.
REASONS TO AVOID A little bit too anecdotal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT The Camp Fire remains the deadliest wildfire in the history of California to this date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inhabitants: An Indigenous Perspective
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Toxico

Inhabitants: An Indigenous Perspective


Effective land management techniques that go back two millennia.

(2021) Documentary (Inhabit) Michael Kotutwa Johnson, Kalani Souza, Ervin Carlson, Frank Lake, Teri Dahle, Bill Tripp, Chris Caldwell, Pershing Frechette, Caleb Johnson, Betty Cooper, Marshall Recore, Gregory Arteche, Kathy McCoury, Kenneth Brink, Tony Waupochick, Rick O’Rourke, Stormy Palmeteer, Laurie Reiter, Shirley Kauhaiho, Vikki Preston. Directed by Costas Boutsikaris and Anna Palmer

 

Native Americans have always had a very special relationship with the land that they lived on. They consider it their sacred duty to act as stewards, to protect and nurture the land that protects and nurtures them. For millennia they lived in harmony with their surroundings, until European colonists came and chose to exploit that land, driving them into small reservations and nearly annihilating their culture. In spite of it all, that culture perseveres and their connection to the land endures.

This documentary examines the relationships of five different indigenous peoples and the land they live on; the Hopi of the American Southwest, the Karuk of Northern California, the Blackfeet of the Plains, the Menominee of the Northern Midwest and the Native Hawaiians.

Dr. Michael Kotutwa Johnson of the Hopi explains dry farming – farming done without artificial irrigation – and how it has been able to bring drought-resistant crops in even in the arid Southwest. He shows ancient Hopi methods – using a planting stick to push the seeds deeper into the soil where they get to where the moisture is retained, and shy away from the straight lines of Western farming, using drought-resistant plants like certain strains of beans and corn to help make the Hopi more self-sustaining; more importantly, as climate change could potentially turn farming land more arid, it will provide valuable ways to continue to feed those who rely on that farmland for food.

As California has been ravaged by wildfires, the Karuk aboriginals have had the solution for generations; controlled burns that rid the redwood forests of highly flammable underbrush; the smoke from the controlled burns gathers in the canopies and helps retain moisture in the soil, and the nutrients from the burning also enrich the soil. More importantly, these control burns make the trees more fire-resistant with layers of carbon that protect the trees in case of a wildfire. Bill Tripp of the Karuk oversees their efforts at keeping the homes and people on their reservation safe from the devastating wildfires that have plagued the state the past two years, and it may be that the state of California is taking notice of their methods.

For the Plains natives, the buffalo was always a major economic engine; the bison provided food, clothing and shelter for the natives, but the animals – who once numbered in the millions, were down to about 200 by the mid-20th century and were on the endangered species list. Careful stewardship of the buffalo, including that of Erwin Carlson (President of the Intertribal Buffalo Council) and Teri Dahle (Program Director of the Iinii Initiative that is providing an ecological reserve on which the buffalo can thrive) have brought the animals back from the brink of extinction to the point that they are no longer on the edge of extinction; in fact, non-native culture is discovering the benefits of the bison as an alternative to beef.

For the Menominee tribe of the Northern Midwest, the forest is their sacred land and protecting it is their responsibility. They do it through selective tree harvesting, removing diseased and stunted trees for lumber harvesting while planting seedlings for future growth. Chris Caldwell of the Menominee shows graphically the deforested areas adjacent to the reservation where lumber barons wiped the forests out without regard for replanting. The Menominee forests are thick, lush and healthy, illustrating how a sustainable model can be economically viable for all concerned.

Finally, native Hawaiians led by the Reverend Kalani Souza illustrate the concept of food forestry – using native plants and roots as a food source. Planting breadfruit, taro and other plants native to the islands creates a sustainable food source that thrives in Hawaii’s temperate climate, even as European settlers threatened to overwhelm the islands with pineapple and coffee plantations, neither native to Hawaii. As seen in all these examples, the wisdom of the original inhabitants is finally being heard, as it is being rediscovered by the indigenous peoples themselves.

Co-directors Costas Boutsikaris and Anna Palmer prefer to tell their stories in a non-linear fashion, jumping around from region to region which does dilute the power of the messages a bit. However, the talking heads recruited here are incredibly persuasive and passionate about their various fields of expertise. The cinematography is often breathtaking and conveys the spirituality with which Native Americans regard the land they reside on.

We non-indigenous folks have a tendency to misunderstand the deep connection between indigenous peoples and the land they live on; it is a part of their culture that is often overlooked. As the world is faced with the sobering realities of climate change, it is somehow comforting to know that some of the solutions are ancient and have been with us for two thousand years and more. We ignore this ancient wisdom at our own peril.

This is the last day that the film will be available online as part of the DocLands film festival (you can purchase it by clicking the link under Virtual Cinema below), but keep an eye out for it on the festival circuit. It is also likely to end up on PBS or Discovery at some point.

REASONS TO SEE: The information is fascinating. Beautiful cinematography in an almost spiritual way.
REASONS TO AVOID: Bounces around a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all family members.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Native Americans of the Karuk tribe used controlled burns to regulate forest undergrowth two thousand years ago; for awhile in the early 20th century it was illegal to use that method on their own tribal lands. Ony now as science has discovered the benefits of controlled burns have they been allowed to return to their tried and true methods.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (today only)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: If a Tree Falls
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Riders of Justice