A few times a year, I take out my HEPA filter and begin to reassure worried friends and family members that no, the city of Los Angeles, where I live, isn’t burning—or at least not yet. The air quality here is almost always bad, but I turn on the air filter only when smoke comes in, filling the basin and darkening the sky.
Joan Didion wrote in 1967, “The burning of the city is the darkest image of Los Angeles itself.” Two years after the Watts rebellion, but Didion was not writing about race and count, she was creating a poetically apocalyptic image of the city and, by extension, California. Decades later, she returned to the topic, using a phrase—”season of fire”—that now seems obsolete. In an age of enduring drought and climate change, wildfires in the West seem never to be extinguished, where in July the smoke reached East coast.
In “Bring Your Own Brigade,” director Lucy Walker doesn’t just look at the fire; She investigates and tries to understand them. It’s a tough, smart, impressive film, and one of its virtues is that Walker, a British transplant in Los Angeles, didn’t figure it all out before he started shooting. She comes across as open, curious, and appropriately anxious, but her approach—the way she looks and hears, and how she shapes the material—gives the film a quality of discovery. (He’s also pleasantly free of the boosterism or smog animosity that characterizes so much coverage of California.)
Distinctive and universal, sad and hopeful, “Bring Your Own Brigade” opens on a world in flames. It is the present day and fires are burning everywhere – in Australia, Greece, the United States. Ignited by a long, devastating history of lightning strikes, downed power lines, and human error, the fire is swamping acres for miles, destroying homes and neighborhoods, and destroying every living thing in its path. is killing. It’s terrifying and, if you can make it past the heartwarming opening images of the film, in particular a pitifully sung and whispering koala, you soon understand that your panic is justified.