Sundance Review: “Bring Your Own Brigade”

Year: 2021
Runtime: 127 minutes
Director: Lucy Walker

By Morgan Roberts

Fire is portrayed as a form of destruction, but could it possibly be more complicated than purely evil? That is the tip of the iceberg in Lucy Walker‘s latest documentary, “Bring Your Own Brigade.” Intrigued by the devastation that followed the Thomas Fire, Walker sought to understand this fire and wildfires in California. The initial idea was for a short documentary film. But then November 8, 2018 happened.

On that day, a wildfire erupted in Northern California outside of the communities of Concow and Paradise. The fire moved rapidly towards these communities. Moving at a rate of about 130 yards a minute. As you can guess, the people in Concow and Paradise, the latter of which has a population of 30,000 people, were completely caught off guard. Any preparation they had was thrown out the window as people scrambled to escape the incinerating fire. 85 people died.

Meanwhile, over 400 miles away, the residents of Malibu, California were confronted with their own emergency: the Woolsey Fire. This fire also rapidly tore through the community, prompting 295,000 people to be evacuated with three people perishing in the fire. So, you would expect that the next step is to explore climate change. Well, not so fast. While climate change is a factor in the intensity and frequency of wildfires, it is just that – a factor. What Walker and crew uncover is that it is more complicated than climate change, and that is when the film becomes a bit of a metaphor for a wildlife: it swiftly starts and unexpectedly changes course, spreading in ways you did not think imaginable. That is what makes “Bring Your Own Brigade” such a compelling piece. Walker allowed for it to unfold, as well as simultaneously digging for more truth.

[Lucy] Walker has a way of striking an emotional chord with her pieces. The opening of the film shook me to my core and it did not really relent from there.

The film brings many points to the table. One that I found particularly intriguing is our narrative of fire. Like many people who grow up in areas with wildfires, I was taught that fire is not a good thing. When I was ten, I lived through, at the time, Colorado’s largest wildfire – the Hayman fire was dethroned of its title in 2020. Any time there were outdoor events with fire, everyone’s mother became Smokey the Bear. But “Bring Your Own Brigade” starts to show that fire isn’t necessarily an evil or even a good entity, but a part of nature. And our relationship with nature is precarious to say the least. As a society, we have become obsessed with controlling and dominating fire, that we have lost respect for it. The more and more you have to tame something, the more and more it adapts to your tactics.

But as I mentioned earlier, it is far more complicated that giving fire’s public image a bit of a facelift. With all of the problems presented, Walker is able to provide us with some solutions. Obviously, so many of these solutions require long-term and multigenerational goals. However, there are simple solutions we can look into now such as increasing taxes for firefighting resources, city and municipality land management assessing areas hardest hit by fires and turning them into public lands, and basic structural changes to new builds in wildfire prone areas. But from here, we are presented with a new problem. We have some tactics to use now to diminish the casualty and property damage due to fires, but do we, as stubborn, individualistic Americans take the steps to make these changes?

A still from Bring Your Own Brigade by Lucy Walker, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Lucy Walker. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

These seem to be easy answers, but there are layers that Walker takes us through to give us the full context of the situation. Regional practices, corporate operations, governmental shifts of responsibility all play part into complicating the situation. One solution, in my mind, makes the most sense, and that is talking to the indigenous populations of the area. Walker talks with indigenous people in Northern California who have practices of creating small fires that will go out on their own to help minimize the fuel for an uncontrolled fire. People who have lived on those lands for centuries might know a thing or two about the areas Europeans stole hundreds of years ago. It is a really important piece that we certainly need to bring into the conversation. I am glad that the indigenous practices were discussed to help us understand what we need to do to combat this taxing problem.

I have been a fan of Walker’s films for a while. Historically, “The Lion’s Mouth Opens” is the only short film that has caused me to weep. Walker has a way of striking an emotional chord with her pieces. The opening of the film shook me to my core and it did not really relent from there. “Bring Your Own Brigade” will stick around for some time after you watch it. And while the film deals with the trauma and devastation left in the wake of a fire, it doesn’t leave you in despair, but it does give you a call to action. To look outside of your singular bubble and start to take responsibility for your impact on others in the world. “At what point does this tree become a forest?”


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