Filmmaker Lucy Walker’s new documentary Bring Your Own Brigade is a large, unwieldy film, bursting at the seams with ideas. While occasionally unfocused, Walker deftly navigates a tangled melange of tangential threads that eventually coalesce into a tapestry of human suffering brought on by neglect and political intransigence. A British native who had moved to Los Angeles several years prior, Walker explains via voiceover that she was fascinated and disturbed by the prevalence of forest fires in the area and set about to research the topic. The film begins in earnest in Malibu on November 8, 2018. As part of her ongoing project, Walker and her camera crew happened to be embedded with the local fire department on the day the Woolsey fire broke out, razing large swathes of Malibu and Ventura County. This happened on the same day and only 500 miles away from the now-infamous Camp fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise, CA. It’s a collection of remarkable, visceral, heartbreaking footage, perhaps the closest many viewers will ever come to experiencing this kind of hellish scenario. Scenes of people trying in vain to protect their homes, or attempting to evacuate on clogged roadways while surrounded by flames induce white-knuckle terror. But Walker is trying to get at something more than just the experiential horror of this tragedy. Instead, the film gradually transforms into something else entirely.
Unlike Eva Orner’s Burning, which sections of Bring Your Own Brigade superficially resemble, Walker doesn’t build her film around a handful of repeating talking heads. Instead, she creates a kind of cacophony of voices; if the film loses something in its lack of specific focus, it makes up for it in its sheer breadth of inquiry. Ultimately, the film isn’t about climate change — while numerous commentators admit that climate change has exacerbated these kinds of fires, the real problem is human intervention in what are otherwise naturally occurring cycles of destruction and rebirth. Or, as one talking head puts it, these fires “are not acts of God but of human error.” Walker offers a brief history of the settling of California, a series of gold rushes and decentralized growth that culminated in a libertarian mindset that abhors regulations and prizes personal freedoms above all else (a fitting enough conclusion to draw about America as a whole, too). Generations of European colonialism fundamentally altered the landscape, removing trees and introducing types of grasses and saplings not indigenous to the region. There’s a quick detour that takes aim at local timber barons Sierra Pacific Industries, the largest landowner in California whose own holdings align with maps of the burn zone of the Camp fire. Experts testify to the legacy of clearcutting and deforestation, and how planting new, young trees to replace what’s been cut down actually creates a new, more combustible fuel load for fires. Or, as we are told, “logging takes the big stuff and leaves the little; fire takes the little stuff and leaves the big.” Once the big stuff is gone, the little stuff burns quicker and hotter than before.
Further complicating matters are local fire departments and environmentalists attempting to convince citizens that some fires are actually necessary, and in some cases that they are living in areas that never should have been developed. Builders and local regulators have seemingly no interest in avoiding certain areas prone to naturally occurring blazes, instead assuming that fire departments will always be on hand to put them out. This is at least partially true, at least for the richest amongst us. The title of the film is explained as a joke about rich homeowners being able to afford private firefighters. They can “BYOB” — bring your own brigade. Walker takes her camera into local city council meetings and captures a citizenry and its elected officials that are totally unwilling to make even the smallest changes to their lifestyles to stave off future catastrophes. It’s infuriating, a glimpse of humanity at its most craven and ignorant, specific in its context here but speaking to failures of our larger cultural conscience. Walker tries to end on a hopeful note, checking in on a local man, Brad Weldon, who has created a commune of fire survivors who live in harmony with the land. He’s a charming eccentric, and the small community he’s amassed offers a roadmap of sorts for how to coexist with a volatile natural world. Unfortunately, the rest of the film offers ample evidence that Weldon and his type are outliers, and the rest of us are doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes. Less a teaching tool than a brutal slap in the face, Bring Your Own Brigade is a wake up call that depressingly might already be too late.
Originally published as part of DOC NYC 2021 — Dispatch 4.