Sometimes, a film comes out at a time that makes it a little uncomfortable to review.
For example, through no fault of its own, Elemental: Reimagine Wildfire comes in the midst of the massive fires in Quebec that have affected air quality in areas from Toronto to New York. Obviously, this sort of timing is unpredictable and has nothing to do with the film itself. But, admittedly, this very real-life tragedy slightly overshadows Wildfire’s release.
But, it also makes the film all that more pertinent.
Directed by Trip Jennings and narrated by David Oyelowo, Elemental: Reimagine Wildfire begins during a harrowing escape from Paradise, California in the midst of one of a catastrophic inferno. Enveloped in flames and covered with wind-driven embers, the citizens of Paradise scratch and claw to find their loved ones and flee the oncoming blaze. But, as Wildfire delves into the incredible rise of these record-shattering disasters in recent years, Jennings also explores our relationship to fire and hopes to redefine what that looks like as we move into the future.
Quite frankly, Wildfire may feature some of the most terrifying flame footage ever put to screen as Jennings sets the viewer in the midst of the blaze. From first person footage to interviews with affected families, the film showcases the uninhibited destruction that is left in the wake of these catastrophes. Flames envelope the vehicles of people racing to save their families. Parents are terrified at the prospect of losing their children. At one point, an observer notes that the sky is as black as the middle of the night, only to note that it’s actually noon.
To put it mildly, it’s intense. Both visually and emotionally.
But what makes Wildfire so unique is that its attempts to reframe our relationship to fire. Instead of simply highlighting the devastation caused by the flames, Jennings helps reorient the viewer to the nature to fire itself. Whereas other docs may suggest that these sorts of things are ‘unpreventable’, Wildfire insists that change in our behaviours may help change the frequency of these tragedies. Conversations about global warming and climate change are fairly standard when discussing natural disasters but Jennings takes it to another level.
One of the most stirring revelations comes as he ties the increase in wildfires to the colonization of Indigenous populations. For example, he highlights the ways that Indigenous peoples used fire to help curate the land, as opposed to destroy it. In doing so, they were able to use small bursts of flame to help keep the natural world thrive. Yet this sort of care was seen as a threat by colonizers who sought to outlaw its use, helping elevate the threat of uncontrollable blazes.
It’s revelations like this that make Elemental: Reimagine Wildfire so fascinating. Jennings insists that fire need not be our adversary. In fact, if we embrace the flames a little differently, we actually may find ourselves able to live together in ways that minimize the devastating effects of nature unleashed. As we move into a hotter, drier future and see the increasing effects of our ignorance, Wildfire proves that this relationship is one worth exploring more deeply.
Elemental: Reimagine Wildfire is available on VOD on Tuesday, June 13th, 2023.