Certain events transcend the power of words. There’s no way, for example, to have a clue what it’s like to have your house burn down until it actually happens. But there’s no shortage of words on this subject in Tea Fire: Re-Birth, Craig Harris’s documentary about the devastation wrought by the Tea Fire that tries to capture efforts of survivors to reclaim their lives, their homes, and most critically, their spirit of community. The movie’s most eloquent moments, however, come when the speakers fall silent and the camera allows itself to linger on their faces. In these quiet moments, a sense of loss and exhaustion seeps to the surface, as well as the magnitude of the ordeal they face in rebuilding.
This is Harris’s sixth documentary, but he provides no narrative context in which to frame the torrent of recollections and insights coming our way, in part because he was chastised for intruding in another documentarian’s earlier efforts. As a result, this comes across a little raw and uncooked. But that’s also because Harris was in such a hurry to get the film done, since victims fretted that the damage and rebuilding struggles would be soon forgotten. This film is designed to inoculate Santa Barbarians from the post-traumatic amnesia that too frequently follows natural disasters. Plus, proceeds of the March 16 premiere will be donated to those Tea Fire survivors unfortunate enough to have no insurance.
In many ways, Tea Fire: Re-Birth is an undeclared love song to the Mountain Drive community, a group imbued with a pagan spirit of celebratory improvisation long before the hippie movement of the 1960s ever asserted itself. I say “undeclared” because Harris-out of deference to another filmmaker working on his own documentary about Mountain Drive-addresses the defining traditions of this community only indirectly. But it’s hardly a coincidence that almost everyone interviewed for this film hailed from Mountain Drive. Harris demonstrated what that sense of “community”-certainly one of the most abused phrases in the English language-actually means in times of urgent calamity. On Mountain Drive, it translated, vividly and heroically, into neighbor helping neighbor. Elsewhere perhaps, it might well have been “every man for himself” and-to steal a line from filmmaker Werner Herzog-“God against all.”
By Paul Wellman