The LA-based British filmmaker Lucy Walker’s eye-opening and open-eyed doc Bring Your Own Brigade plunges us into the hell of the 2018 Camp and Woolsey fires in California before taking a discursive tour of the patterns and histories behind them.
Throughout, the Oscar-nominated director of Countdown to Zero and Waste Land is never far from an startling eyewitness account. She sticks especially close to one resident of the northern Californian town of Paradise, the charismatic Brad Weldon, who kept the encroaching fire (which killed at least 86 fellow residents) at bay while sheltering his bed-bound eldlerly blind mother and later turned his home into a ‘commune’ for homeless neighbours.
This toggling between the macro and the micro characterises Walker’s film: you could say it tries to do too much, but most worries about how the filmmaker tries to balance intimate accounts with getting a grip on the bigger picture are softened by how she remains open-minded and sympathetic to different perspectives throughout.
For almost the entire first half Walker pulls us extremely close to these tragedies. She mixes horrifying, apocalyptic footage shot by locals or others – especially in Paradise – with her own journey into the hills in the company of a firefighter. The immediate aftermath is equally awful: Walker speaks with residents about their experience during and after the fires, and we witness firefighters – a number of whom took their own lives after these events – sifting through ash for evidence of human remains. Bring Your Own Brigade leans into the overwhelming power, even beauty, of these infernos, allowing us to feel their sheer magnitude through startling imagery. They’re awful but also awe-inspiring.
But this isn’t just a sympathetic disaster movie. It’s fuelled by empathy, and also for curiosity at what causes these fires, and what can be done to prevent them. What’s most interesting is how Bring Your Own Brigade (the name comes from a growing reliance on private firefighters among the wealthy) is how it argues that, yes, climate change is a contributor, but also asks that we don’t let that cloud other factors. These include the refusal of humans individually and collectively to adapt to an environment at risk of such infernos; a pattern of intense forestation and logging; and the rejection by European settlers of Indigenous methods of managing land.
As that list suggests, that’s a lot to cram into two hours, but it also means that we don’t leave Bring Your Own Brigade with a neat thesis. Rather, it forces us to understand the human impact of these disasters and leaves us with plenty of open threads to take away and use to consider what, if anything, can be done about preventing such horrors in the future. It’s a provocative and necessary film.