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‘Bring Your Own Brigade’ Review: Lucy Walker Stares Into the Blazing Maw of California Wildfires

Sundance: From the Camp to Woolsey fires, this overambitious documentary takes the temperature of an infernal crisis rocking the West Coast.

Bring Your Own Brigade

“Bring Your Own Brigade”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Getty Images

The year 2018 was a hellish one for Californians, as seemingly at any given time there was at least one wildfire blazing up and down the coast. Two such natural disasters, the Camp Fire in Paradise, Northern California, and the Woolsey Fire in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, proved to be among the most destructive in the state’s history, and they’re given a sweeping, almost epic overview from “Crash Reel” filmmaker Lucy Walker with “Bring Your Own Brigade.” The film tries to distill all of California’s current wildfire crisis — with the state serving as a microcosm for the world — into a whopping near two hour and 10 minutes.

The result is a portrait that could’ve benefited either from a grander episodic treatment, or a healthy trim, as the film moves so quickly from one talking point to the next almost to the point of inducing whiplash. Still, the insane archival footage of the infernos as they happened makes for an occasionally arresting viewing experience.

“Bring Your Own Brigade” uses a handful of people whose lives were touched by the fires as entry points into the crisis, beginning with Brad Weldon, a man in Paradise that warded the engulfing flames off his home with hoses and buckets, all the while protecting his 90-year-old disabled mother. Weldon’s story is the most emotionally compelling, and the one Walker seems most fascinated by.

It’s interesting to see the friction start to emerge between the filmmaker and some of her subjects, as fellow Paradise residents disavow climate change as a contributing factor in their fires. But Walker and Weldon (along with his mother, blissed out on weed cookies) seem to have the best rapport. “We’re still here. We didn’t burn down,” Weldon says.

Others were not so lucky. “Bring Your Own Brigade” features testimonies from dozens of people who lost loved ones or personal effects in the fires in the ensuing scramble as evacuation warnings, Walker points out, simply didn’t happen. The blazes that tore apart Malibu with the Woolsey Fire that ignited in November 2018, Malibu Fire Captain Rick Mullen says, were “like peering into Dante’s inferno.” Indeed, Walker ramps up the hellish atmosphere, from tableaux of charred animals to harrowing phone calls to first responders of people screaming for their lives.

“Bring Your Own Brigade”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Lucy Walker

There’s also footage of Southern California that went viral at the time of the usual 405 and PCH traffic slow-crawling beneath arches of flames. The horrors are tipped into overkill with the inclusion of music by the likes of Sigur Ros and Max Richter, which certainly contributes dramatic effect, but feels unnecessarily overlaid onto what is inherently excruciating to watch. It feels like “I’m on an acid trip that might not end,” says one survivor.

“Bring Your Own Brigade” bounces around from the various phenomena that paved the way for the fires to happen in California in the first place, from the Gold Rush of the 1800s to deforestation to the lack of funding for fire departments. It’s a dizzying, unwieldy experience that could send you for your notepad. The film also dwells far too long on an epilogue that tries to check in on all of the film’s subjects, with saccharine music providing the finish to stretches of memoriam. When Walker’s film is most thrilling is in moments like a Northern California town council meeting where, with the filmmaker herself in attendance, committee members vote en masse against measures that could shore up the state’s fire-proofing infrastructure.

This film is shaggy in its structure, and overall visually flat without a bevy of filmmaker-y flourishes, and that’s surely intentional to starkly portray the tragic human face of the fires. Lacking the concision to bring home its argument, “Bring Your Own Brigade” isn’t going to flip the script on what is a dyed-in-the-wool systemic mess. But it does provide a necessary reflection on a dark period in California history that, to the surprise of no one, just repeated itself in 2020.

Grade: C+

“Bring Your Own Brigade” debuted at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres section. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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