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(Lucy Walker’s documentary Bring Your Own Brigade hits theaters Friday, August 6. Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not give just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

“Everyone talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” 

[…or alternatively and perhaps more accurately…]

“It is a matter about which a great deal is said but very little done.” 

Charles Dudley Warner, co-author (with Mark Twain) of The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today

In Bring Your Own Brigade, a documentary filled with a cascade of horrifying imagery, perhaps nothing is quite so disturbing — beyond extensive wildfire destruction and death displayed in terrifying mobile-phone footage and horrifying telephone calls in the midst of extraordinary heroism — as a council meeting where nothing whatsoever is accomplished. Possibly worse-than-nothing. Despite overwhelming evidence of the minimal amounts of effort necessary to protect the surviving citizens of Paradise, CA from the inevitable fires ahead, the politicians choose career self-preservation in the face of opposition rather than protecting their fellow citizens. 

The Gilded Age satirized political greed and corruption when it was published nearly one-hundred-fifty years ago. Wisdom accrued with the passage of time? Not so much. There are obvious parallels to the pandemic, of course: far too many people unwilling to do whatever basic thing would be necessary to protect themselves from harm. In this case, folks would prefer pretty shrubbery next to their home over burning to death in the next conflagration that’ll make its way through town sooner than later.

Although the focus is a single horrible day in California, November 8, 2017 and the Camp fire in the northeastern part of the state which decimated the small town of Paradise (and the deaths of eighty-five of its residents) along with the Woolsey fire near Malibu with a comparatively nominal three (yet still far too many) deaths — but this isn’t merely a story of a lone U.S. state. These fires are a dreadful recent feature throughout Australia, Greece, Russia, South Africa, China, Indonesia, South Korea and Brazil (and, presently, Turkey and elsewhere). Borders are a bit meaningless at this point. Thus far in 2021, over 34K wildfires have burned 1.5M acres.

Bookended by visits to “Bradopolis”— community member turned firefighter Brad Weldon’s impromptu post-fire commune, a single-family residence spared destruction (by the angels, evidently) which temporarily housed twenty folks after the Camp fire — the documentary is a litany of information of cause and causation. Are fires natural? Yes. Is fire suppression unnatural? Also yes. Fire containment? Preferable. Indigenous burning practices? Ideal.

Imagine yourself in the area now known as California, circa 1542, when Captain Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and crew sailed into Santa Monica Bay around that time and deemed the place “Bahía de los Fumos” [“Bay of Smoke”]. Fire is not a new development in this region. Or how about 1848, during the Gold Rush, near Sutter’s Mill? More fires. Fires you don’t usually read about.

Lucy Walker, arguably best-known for her Academy Award-nominated Waste Land a decade ago (although she made several films earlier and many films since), opts for a semi-personal approach in Bring Your Own Brigade. She is the narrator and appears on-screen — once — to anchor her story as a British ex-pat trying to understand how fires are still a thing these days. Is it because of climate change? Partially. Is it due to housing construction in the WUI (Wildland Urban Interface)? Somewhat (although there have been houses in those areas for a long, long time). Is it a result of extensive logging and post-fire logging plantations? That, too (and f— you, Archie “Red” Emmerson of Sierra Pacific Industries and your corporate-welfare approach to capitalism). “Climate-driven alterations” to fire-prone regions? Yep. This is not a one-problem-requires-one-solution issue. Many-problems-require-a-multitude-of-interrelated-solutions instead.

There are more than a handful of questionable choices throughout. Is Weldon the ideal choice as a “face” of this tale (regardless of his obvious charisma)? Potentially not. Music-wise, Bela Lugosi’s Dead and other occasionally odd diversions? Really? The title itself comes from a throw-away line from one of the survivors about how the future of fire-fighting will reflect those who can afford their own personal firefighters-for-hire. Is that our primary take-away? Definitely not. Meanwhile, why reinforce the few successes of those who stayed behind (when many who didn’t, died)? No idea. They were available, evidently. The dead don’t speak. 

There is a clearly a desire to “do something about the weather” in BYOB yet it suffers from the weaknesses of similar issue-oriented documentaries. It wants to contain multitudes for a wide audience — attempting to convince the viewers to make some sort of difference in their respective communities — yet it ultimately fails to be much of anything substantial for anyone, unfortunately. The intent is well-meaning, however, and perhaps that’ll be sufficient.

The documentary opens theatrically, whatever that means these days, in the U.S. on August 6, the anniversary of an entirely different sort of U.S.-related hellfire that obliterated Hiroshima seven-and-a-half decades earlier. Available on Paramount+ a few weeks thereafter.

— Jonathan Marlow (@aliasMarlow)

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