DOC NYC 2021: ‘Bring Your Own Brigade’ Is an Emotional Reflection of Human Fragility and Arrogance

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Bring Your Own Brigade

Paradise resident Brad Weldon believes angels saved his house and the life of his 90-year-old blind mother who refused to evacuate when the deadly 2018 Camp Fire swept through the region. This is because just when the fire tornado was about to swallow them, a powerful wind pushed it away. I don’t believe in angels, but the harrowing first 40 minutes of Bring Your Own Brigade kind of makes a good point in favor of Brad as director Lucy Walker displays the devastation, suffering, trauma, and death Camp Fire left behind. 

The documentary immediately captures your attention and tries to reduce you to tears. You see apocalyptic landscapes populated by gigantic flames engulfing cars and houses, some of them shot through the phones of people trapped in a traffic jam; you see trees, cars, and houses burning; interviewees on the verge of tears as they recall their survival and how close they were to death, some of them have a traumatized look in their eyes. You listen to desperate 911 calls of people trapped in their homes as every door is on fire. 

The film engulfs you. The pace of this whole section is ferocious; it’s as if editors Christy Denes, Wes Lipman, and Dan Oberle were trying to replicate the speed of the fires. It’s a humbling and terrifying watch that fully conveys the impact of this tragedy. 

But the focus of Bring Your Own Brigade is on the aftermath of the events. People walk over the remnants of their burned home, some reminiscences with deep sadness about the loss of priceless memories like photos of recently deceased wives or family albums. Others reflect on how lucky they are to be alive. These heartfelt moments are accompanied by a sad score to really tear at your heartstrings. Sometimes, the director breaks the spell by interrupting the scene with cheesy narration, a constant problem throughout the film. 

However, the documentary soon embraces its investigative journalism nature and starts asking questions about the origins of the fires and possible solutions to reduce their damage to California. Walker goes through a quick rundown of the state’s history and explores the possible impact of climate change. Through the help of testimonies, some archival footage, and interviews with experts, Bring Your Own Brigade provides good explanations of harmful industry practices, the exploitation of lumbering, the lack of state support, improper constructions, and of course, human stupidity. 

Steadily, the film starts to point a finger toward greed and selfishness. Victims blame firefighters and the state’s inability to save their homes. Still, later on, during a council meeting and one of the most thrilling parts of the film, they refuse to take action by voting against the implementation of safety measures because they feel it violates their “personal freedom.” And, yes, you guessed right: the vast majority of people you see in these meetings are white.

This is then masterfully connected with a quick commentary about America’s history of murder and arrogance. Contrasting to the council meeting, we learn about wise Indigenous practices from the Karuk people of North California related to the use of fire. Just like many 2021 documentaries focused on the Indigenous experience, such as The Spokeswoman and Eatnameamet – Our Silent Struggle, Bring Your Own Brigade manages to shine a spotlight on how this knowledge that can be crucial to the healing of Earth is continually ignored or smothered by white people.

Where Bring Your Own Brigade really falters is the failure at exploring the environmental impact of the fires. It doesn’t talk about the widespread pollution, the uninhabitable conditions of some regions, or the contamination of water systems. Neither does it address the devastating loss of animal life: thousands of animals — whether they were pets, livestock or wildlife — died during the tragedy, and Walker irresponsibly ignores them which becomes more egregious because of her use of the viral video of a desperate burnt koala crying in pain until saved by a human, to manipulate our emotions during the first few minutes of the documentary. She barely talks about animal life again.

The human experience, however, is always at the forefront of Bring Your Own Brigade, a documentary that, despite brushing over some important themes, creates a thoughtful examination of both human stubbornness and fragility. The enraging attitude of deniers is balanced by the inspirational outlook of people like Brad, whose reflections on life and love provide the hope promised by the narration of Walker early in the film.

Bring Your Own Brigade is screening at DOC NYC 2021 as part of the Short List program and is streaming on Paramout+.


Bring Your Own Brigade
  • 7.5/10
    Rating - 7.5/10
7.5/10

TL;DR

The human experience, however, is always at the forefront of Bring Your Own Brigade, a documentary that, despite brushing over some important themes, creates a thoughtful examination of both human stubbornness and fragility. The enraging attitude of deniers is balanced by the inspirational outlook of people like Brad, whose reflections on life and love provide the hope promised by the narration of Walker early in the film.