Now Playing! Streaming Docs Dive Into Water, Fire and the Fight for Civil Rights

Dale Ho from 'The Fight.' (Courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Luca Brasi swims with the fishes. Not exactly, but you can—virtually, with the resurgent International Ocean Film Festival. Ron Howard’s sobering documentary Rebuilding Paradise revisits the hell and the traumatic aftermath of the Camp Fire. Another timely doc, The Fight, follows the ACLU’s courtroom challenges to the administration’s seismic sabotages of the Constitution. What’s the connection between this week’s film offerings? It’s elemental, Watson.

International Ocean Film Festival 
July 30–Aug. 9

Just two days before the Cowell Theater curtain was going to open on the 17th International Ocean Film Festival in March, the coronavirus forced the event’s cancellation. In an admirable feat of determination and logistics, the IOFF has successfully reassembled the entire original program online under the rallying cry “Reconnecting Summer 2020.”

The lineup includes nine feature-length films, a couple shorts programs and a slew of live-streamed Q&As and panel conversations. Several of the films, notably Sea of Shadows, which details the dwindling number of vaquitas (porpoises) in Mexican waters, catalog the dangers to and defenders of ocean life. An exhilarating exception, Picture of His Life, brings to light the holistic, healing properties of the sea.

Amos Nachoum in a still from 'Picture of His Life.' (Courtesy IOFF)

Israeli underwater photographer Amos Nachoum, who’s lived for years in nearby Pacific Grove, generally prefers orcas and Manta rays to people. But a few years ago he allowed filmmakers Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir (and a small crew) to accompany him to the Canadian Arctic to fulfill his lifelong dream of photographing elusive polar bears below the surface of Baker Lake.

“At the end of the day, Amos was looking for his family,” Menkin told me in a phone interview last summer. “His family is the universe. It’s Mother Nature. He found his family and lives with it in harmony, and that’s what he wants us to do.”

Rebuilding Paradise
Opens July 31
VOD via several local theaters

When I heard that perennial optimist and all-around good guy Ron Howard had made a documentary called Rebuilding Paradise for National Geographic about the catastrophic 2018 Northern California wildfire, I expected a skillfully crafted chunk of cinematic candy corn. You know the type: An uplifting testament to the resilience of human beings, with soaring strings and lots of tearful hugging, graphed in a straight line from tragedy to transcendence.

The trajectory of Rebuilding Paradise, it turns out, hews much closer to the ground. In the past 18 months, the survivors’ heroism and other fine qualities have been tested by a daunting gauntlet of reality checks, from destroyed schools to FEMA debris-clearing rules to benzene-infused water to scarce housing permits. When the camera does rise above it all, via drone, a panorama of scorched, empty lots shocks us back to earth.

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Rebuilding Paradise is surprisingly powerful given that it is necessarily superficial. Howard has so many elements to touch on—Paradise’s small-town history, the atmospheric (and prolonged drought) conditions the day of the fire, the cops’ response, PGE’s place in the catastrophe, the ongoing displacement and suffering, the strategy of managed burning in forests—in addition to following a handful of characters (notably the school superintendent) over the ensuing months, that he can’t pause to dig too deeply into any one thing.

It eventually becomes clear that the takeaway Howard envisioned for us is that climate change is responsible for extreme weather events around the globe, with the Camp Fire among the most tragic and horrifying. He seeks to collapse the distance between viewers and Paradise, and for us to see that we all inhabit the same boat.

That may strike you as conceptual and intellectual, but guess what? Watching Rebuilding Paradise in the middle of a national disaster, I got it viscerally.

Brigitte Amiri and Dale Ho in 'The Fight.' (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

The Fight
Opens July 31
Roxie

A few readers with exceptional memories may recall the 2004 deluge of documentaries intended to rally voters opposed to President George W. Bush’s reelection. (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is the only one of the bunch that anyone remembers.) Prepare yourself for a similar onslaught in the next three months, beginning this weekend with The Fight.

Framing The Fight as a partisan piece, however, is a bit inaccurate and unfair. Is civil rights a partisan issue? Oh, right. Always was, always will be.

Directors Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg followed four ACLU lawyers fighting the Trump administration on reproductive, immigration, voting and LGBTQ+ rights. Ninety minutes is sufficient for skilled filmmakers to dramatize (i.e., emotionalize) those battleground arenas, and the fast-paced Fight provides all the information, punch and money shots of the CliffsNotes version of To Kill a Mockingbird.

That’s not enough time, though, to properly explicate the chronologies of four cases, let alone the complexities. Mind you, that’s the least of the film’s goals. Hopscotching between major litigation is intended to remind viewers—even news junkies who’ve been paying attention since Inauguration Day—of the unprecedented scope of Trump’s assault on civil rights. A small sampling: the Muslim travel ban, separating families at the border, barring (legal) abortions for immigrants held in detention camps and banning transgender people from military service.

I enjoyed The Fight and rooted for the good guys. Indeed, it entertains more than it edifies. At the same time, without tipping into an infomercial or a recruiting video for the American Civil Liberties Union, the filmmakers convincingly conveyed its necessity as well as the dedication and sacrifices of its attorneys.

So, yes, The Fight preaches to the converted. If you know any converts who somehow aren’t riled enough to vote already, point ’em to the Roxie website.