Wildfires have long ravaged California but 2018 was a particularly bad year. That was when the deadly Camp Fire spread quickly through Paradise, California, causing many residents to flee for their lives. The wildfire engulfed houses, burned vehicles, and killed 85 residents. Those who survived endured the trauma that came with escaping the rapidly encroaching flames. Other fires, including one in Malibu, destroyed homes leaving devastation in their wake. While fingers might point to climate change and gender reveal parties as the root cause, there are many factors involved both natural and man-made.
British director Lucy Walker offers a harrowing look at the 2018 California wildfires by examining the events of that year and the people affected by the disasters in her new documentary Bring Your Own Brigade. Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of the documentary was how it uncovers the history of the wildfires and how they’ve progressively gotten worse over time. It’s not quite what you expect. The film features interviews with residents of Paradise and Malibu, first responders, and various experts. It unfolds in an organic way which at times can feel disjointed. Essentially we’re following the director as her curiosity about the California wildfires takes her on a journey of discovery.
In comparing this film with the Netflix documentary Fire in Paradise (2019), Bring Your Own Brigade offers much more in the way of context and background information to both enlighten and terrify its audience.
Bring Your Own Brigade premiered at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Neasa Hardiman, the writer and director of Sea Fever. This science fiction film was a hit at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. It tells the story of a marine biologist who joins a fishing trawler on an expedition and the group comes face to face with a mysterious underwater creature. I really enjoyed this film and was thrilled to be able to talk to the woman who started it all.
Raquel Stecher: Your film Sea Fever felt classic but also brand new. Did you have like influences from science fiction movies and what was the inspiration for this unique story?
Neasa Hardiman: In terms of cinema that, the, you’re absolutely right because the kind of references I was thinking of were Arrival, Annihilation, there was that there were a couple of other, The Thing, there was Alien and there was something about all of those films that I wanted to preserve… The story is less of a roller coaster and more of an exploration… It’s rooted in the transformation of the characters. That that’s actually what the story is. That’s what it’s about. That’s where it lives. And that transformation of those characters is about the kind of central pain of taking responsibility, for yourself or for each other, for the broader natural world and where we are and how we got here.
Raquel Stecher: Siobhan [Hermione Corfield] is such an interesting character. How did you come up with her character and how did you develop it over the story?
Neasa Hardiman: Quite early on in the process I was thinking, what is it if you, is there enough funds in the world? What is it that you want to do with this film that that is different? Or that asks question or that articulates something that feels true? What are the things is I feel like, I’m tell me if you agree with this, but I feel like I’ve seen a lot of films where that figure of the scientist is portrayed as somebody cold, disconnected, often very immoral or amoral, who makes choices that have without any kind of thought about the kind of broader social implications of those choices. They’re often a figure that has to be fought against or that has to be corrected or disempowered in narrative cinema. I’m really uncomfortable with that and I’m really uncomfortable with that idea.
It’s maybe not that surprising because most of the people who make narrative cinema have humanities backgrounds. But I thought, one of the things I want to do is really kind of dig at the roots of thought and go, where does that cliche come from? Cliches become cliches because they’re rooted in something. What is that rooted in? Can we unearth it and look at what’s really happening now? It was really important for me that there are two figures in the story that are really wedded to the scientific method [and] that’s Siobhan and Omid [Ardalan Esmaili]. She’s a very mathematical biologist who’s interested in populations and changes in populations, particularly ecological transformations of what’s happening at a kind of global level. Looking at it through algorithmic modeling.
[Omid’s] equally a problem solver and a, and a mathematician and an engineer. He’s very kind of hands on and uses the scientific method in a very practical way and runs this boat and invents things. It was very important to me that there were two different scientists characters. Because what I wanted to do with Siobhan was explored the roots of that cliche and go, let’s look at what that really is. What is it, where does that come from?
The cliche is the antisocial… sometimes people who are of this character type are quite antisocial. What I think is really not true is the notion of being immoral or the notion of being isolated in a caring.
[Siobhan] does have a slight social deafness. She’s not very good at interpersonal cues. She’s not very good at picking up subtexts and she’s very blunt. I wanted that to be really clear at the beginning of the story.
It was really important for me was to correct that [misconception] or not correct it, but to articulate another version of that. Then also to articulate for what I know to be true of people that are in my life, that that made me think a little bit differently. Which is if I was hanging from a rope off the edge of the cliff, I would want one of those people on the other end of the rope because they would never let me go. They never let me go. And there’s a commitment to honesty and the moral choice, however difficult and however compromising and challenging that I think it goes with that slightly different cognitive style that we don’t celebrate enough. And that’s brilliant. A commitment to focus. Focusing on something and becoming an expert and being able to push forward the minutes of knowledge that goes with that slightly different cognitive style that is amazing.
Raquel Stecher: Siobhan works for something greater than herself.
Neasa Hardiman: Because that’s the moral choice, because there’s a kind of moral clarity that goes with that slight difference in thinking. I really wanted have a figure who embodied that. The roots of this cliche are in something that’s actually much more beautiful and complex and painful and difficult, and brilliant. At the same time I want us to have this other scientific figure in the story in Omid [Ardalan Esmaili] going, “But not every scientist is that.”
There are plenty of people who give their life to science who are also really warm and funny and charming and… don’t have any kind of cognitive difference in that sense. They’re still really good scientists… and really good colleagues. That was already important to me, was to valorize and champion the scientific method. The value of that, of zooming out from your own first responses on what might be your own logic or your magical thinking and to be humble enough to go, “I could be wrong. Let’s explore this and let’s say let’s experiment and find the best solution to this problem.”
Raquel Stecher:Sea Fever has an amazing diverse cast. Can you talk about your casting choices and about the tight knit community of trawler life?
Neasa Hardiman: Trawler life is a really hard life and it has the highest death rate of any profession in our end of the UK. More people die as professional trawler people going in any other walk of life.
It is genuinely really a transnational community. There are people from all over the world working with those. These are little tiny communities. There’s little small boats, sleeping seven people, they all know each other and they all kind of live in each others pockets. You see them on the boats and they’re like cats. They’re climbing all over the rigging. It’s terrifying… They’re really elegant. It’s the movements are really precise and elegant as you can imagine in a space like that sort of thing.
I said to [the trawler consultant] Dana, I went to film, I have this scene where Jonny [Jack Hickey] injures his hand, “Is that truthful or is everybody just so precise that that would never happen? She looks at her brother and her brother looks at her and they went “Well, let’s see, there was Arda, he lost his leg from the knee down. Then there was Shawnee, he lost those three fingers? Then there was a fella got decapitated that time.” I’m like, “Okay, okay, okay, that’s fine.”… it’s hard, hard, hard, hard life and dangerous.
[About the cast]
Neasa Hardiman: Characters are sort of like icebergs, you [only see so] much. But actually you have to have all of their story at the back of who they are and what’s happened to them and what their pleasures and pain is. They were really rich and complicated and that narrows your casting choices then because you have to have somebody who can really embody that and also breath their own life into it and bring something else to it.
I was so lucky because every single one of them, there was no second choice. It was like, well it has to be Hermoine [Corfield]. There’s such subtlety. She’s actually really a brilliant but when she’s in character, she’s so withheld but it’s all there.
It had to be Adalan [Esmaili] because he has this warmth that occurs. And a kind of effortless charm and that there was nobody else who had that.
It had to be Dougray [Scott] because he has this kind of he’s the life of the party. He’s funny and charming and really warm, and really openhearted little bit, kind of dangerous. You feel it often and there’s nobody else that could do that.
It had to be Connie [Nielsen] because Connie has a real authority to her. She walks into the room, everybody turns to look at her. She just has that charisma and… that was her in the movie for sure. She takes care of people. She’s very attentive to what’s going on around her and very attentive to, people who might be struggling or suffering. It’s not saccharin, it’s with a kind of rigor and authority to it.
Raquel Stecher: What do you hope the audience will take away from your movie?
Neasa Hardiman: I hope that that the questions that it might trigger or that, that the things that it might make you think about… That sense that we’re separate from nature and that what we do is separate from other animals. We all kind of know that’s not true. We’re a part of it. The idea of this circular animal that’s got these kind of radiating and tendrils was rooted in the idea. What if this is a diagram of what the them of the story is. There’s an unknowable center to life and to the kind of unity of life that exists on our planet and it radiates outwards. And when you see it, what I hope is the intention with the animal is that you see it as it’s kind of mesmerizing, beautiful, unknowable.
That was sort of the central theme of the story. That idea that we do things that radically transform a world that we don’t actually really understand yet, particularly the deep ocean. There was a version of the script which I had to cut back as it was like, this is just too expositional, but there was a version of script where Siobhan [Hermione Corfield] has a speech at the beginning of the story where she goes, you could drop the Himalayas from root to tip into the Atlantic ocean and they would disappear and you wouldn’t notice. It’s so deep and so unknowable and there’s so much life there that we have no idea. We have no idea how we’re implanting on that life [with] micro plastics, our noise and our melting glaciers… we’re transforming things that we haven’t even had a chance to recognize.
For me that was a really important part of the story was really important part of the story to say we have to take responsibility. We have to take responsibility for our actions. Both to each other, to ourselves, to the world and to what we’re doing and to have respect for the broader system of which we are a small part.
I had first heard about The Creation Museum by way of the Duggars. You remember them. The Quiverfull family who had their own hit show on TLC that went from 17 to 18 to 19 Kids and Counting. It was eventually pulled off the air when their oldest son was involved in a sex abuse scandal and a spin-off show eventually replaced it. On one episode of the 18 Kids and Counting, the Duggar clan visits said museum and I was both fascinated and horrified by what I saw. The fierce protection of their literal interpretation of the book of Genesis meant that dinosaurs had to be explained and Darwin’s theory of evolution had to be debunked. Led by Ken Ham, the president and founder of Answers in Genesis, the museum’s sole purpose is to prove that the Bible is scientifically accurate.
A new documentary, We Believe in Dinosaurs, directed by Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross visits Petersburg, KY, home of The Creation Museum and the center of a turbulent battle between creationists and pro-science communities. Shot over the course of four years, it chronicles the building of the Ark Encounter, a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark. In addition to interviews with creationists who work for the museum or support its cause, the documentary also follows two outspoken critics. First there is Dan, a pro-science geologist who has had a lifelong fascination with dinosaurs. Then there is David, a former creationist with a lifelong membership to the museum whose Christian beliefs have evolved away from the psuedo-science of creationism. The events in the documentary lead up to the unveiling of the Ark Encounter and the consequent protest. As a whole the film serves as a portrait of a rural conservative town that has a complicated relationship with the Creation Museum and the economic growth that it promises to bring but ultimately fails to.
I’m impressed by how We Believe in Dinosaurs takes a balanced approach to this subject matter even though it’s clear that this is a critique on creationism. We hear from both sides which is quite extraordinary as the creationists are very protective of their ideology. Ken Ham is not interviewed but several others are including a lecturer, one of the artists working on the Ark Encounter and a pastor who orchestrates a protest to the protest.
“The film echoes the present political climate as Americans stare across a divide at one another, science growing ever more politicized and truth dependent on one’s worldview. Given this highly polarized state of affairs, we understand that WE BELIEVE IN DINOSAURS will not convert creationists to the truth of evolution. However, we do believe the film will spark a vibrant dialogue about the thorny intersection of belief, religion, and science, penetrating the cultural “bubbles” in which so many Americans seem to exist.”
– from the directors’ statement by Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross
As someone who grew up in a Christian denomination that promoted a problematic interpretation of Genesis, I felt closest to David. I wanted to hear more from him. In fact, this would have been a better documentary had David been the center of the story. He’s an in-between figure; someone who’s been on both sides of the creationist vs. science debate and can offer a unique perspective. It would have grounded the story and made it more relatable.
We Believe in Dinosaurs opens up a dialogue about America’s problematic relationship with science. It’s a difficult subject to broach and will make some viewers angry. Where it lacks in storytelling it makes up for in starting the much needed conversation that we’ve all been avoiding.
We Believe in Dinosaurs had its world premiere at SFFilm.
In 1947, Edwin H. Land introduced his invention to the world. The Polaroid camera would revolutionize photography. Inspired by his young daughter, who just couldn’t wait to see a photo that was just taken, Land decided he would develop the technology that would shorten the time gap between the shutter click and the final product. With Polaroid technology it would reduce the time to just one minute.
Fast forward to 1970, when Land was filmed for the short documentary The Long Walk in which he narrates a helicopter tour of several Polaroid facilities in Massachusetts and discusses at length the company’s new technological advancements and his predictions for the future. Land envisioned a day when we would have a portable camera, the size of a wallet, that would be used as regularly as the telephone.
In 2008, the bankrupt Polaroid announced it was no longer producing its trademark film stock. Although Polaroid still exists today, in a new iteration after the brand had been sold, and re-sold, it’s a shadow of its former self. What was once revolutionary is now obsolete in the rapidly changing landscape of the digital age. Have we lost the magic of Polaroid forever?
“It felt like I was confronted with the death of a friend.”
Directed by Willem Baptist, Instant Dreams is a moody and atmospheric eulogy to a lost technology. It’s a quirky documentary that explores the importance of Polaroid as both art and science. The subjects in the film feel the profound loss of Polaroid. Scientist Stephen Herchen can be seen in the film trying to reinvent the lost formula of Polaroid for the Impossible Project. Other subjects include photographer Stefanie Schneider who uses the last of her Polaroid stock to capture her unique aesthetic and Christopher Bonanos, a Polaroid historian.
Instant Dreams captures the essence of Polaroid through its poetic approach in storytelling and visual artistry. If you’re looking for a more traditional documentary on the history of Polaroid, this isn’t it. It does require some patience from the viewer and it won’t be to everyone’s taste.
“Instant Dreams is my cinematic ode to that longing for magic, mystery and a celebration of the dreams of the future that are interwoven with this medium.”
director Willem Baptist
Instant Dreams opens in NYC and L.A. and 10 other North American cities today. Visit the official website for more information.
We’ll never fully realize the level of courage and sacrifice required from the astronauts of those early NASA space missions. They put everything on the line, leaving behind their families and laying down their lives in the name of science and for love of country. It often came at a great cost. And if they were successful and lucky enough to survive their missions, they came back to earth as national heroes, their immortality secured.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Space exploration movies like The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995) offer a glimpse into this world. Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man is the latest in a line of space age dramas and it celebrates one of the greatest accomplishments in human history, the moon landing, through the story of one man, astronaut Neil Armstrong.
First Man follows the story of Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from the death of his young daughter, to his extensive training and his two biggest missions: Gemini 8 and Apollo 11. The story is equally split between Armstrong’s time at NASA and his work with his fellow astronauts and engineers and his home life with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and his two sons. The film is just as much a space exploration story as it is a character study of a complicated man who suffered a tragic loss and struggles to connect with his family. Much time is given to Janet whom, one might be able to argue, is just as courageous as her husband. She has to deal with the stress of not only her husband’s dangerous missions but also his emotional unavailability. In addition she has to keep up her strength to raise her two boys while also being strong for the other astronaut’s wives who inevitably suffer great tragedies of their own.
Ryan Gosling does a marvelous job as the subdued and introspective Neil Armstrong. However I think Claire Foy has the breakout performance as his long-suffering wife Janet. She brings an intensity that not only matches beautifully with Gosling’s performance but also stands on its own. Technically the female parts are far outnumbered by the male but Foy’s performance claims so much of our attention that it feels more like its equally divided than one sided. I wouldn’t be surprised if come award season Foy will be recognized for her performance. Another counterbalance to Armstrong’s character is Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin. Buzz is the outspoken, opinionated and charismatic astronaut, the complete opposite of Neil. I love their scenes together. Jason Clarke, who plays the doomed astronaut Ed White, is very well suited for his character and for mid-20th century parts. He just has that look that works. I was happy to see one of my personal faves Ethan Embry in a small role as space engineer and astronaut Pete Conrad.
First Man must be seen on the big screen for the full impact. I watched it at my local IMAX theater after having missed an opportunity to see this at TIFF. The technical advancements in filmmaking contribute to powerful and awe inspiring depictions of Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 missions. I love how the film lingers on the moon landing, providing the original audio for those first crucial and historic moments but we also spend time in Armstrong’s personal bubble as he takes in his surroundings and taps into some of the emotion he’s been trying to suppress. The Gemini 8 scene was my favorite. It felt so realistic, almost as if I was in the space shuttle with the astronauts. We get a sense of how much power is needed and how many things have to go exactly right to thrust these astronauts into space.
First Man is a technical marvel in filmmaking that puts the audience in the spacecraft and on the moon for a thrilling experience. It’s also a reserved yet poignant character study of a man on the brink of a great achievement who is struggling with his own demons. It deals with an important subject seriously but never becomes cheesy or pretentious. A must see.