Documentary offers filmmakers a chance to share important global stories with their audiences. Stories that the filmmakers want to tell and we, the viewer, deserve to see. In Last Days at Paradise High, filmmakers Derek Knowles and Emily Thomas provide us with a glimpse behind a tragedy that devastated the lives of the inhabitants of Paradise, California. When a wildfire destroyed their town and 86 people lost their lives, the community had to rally to rebuild their lives, this 23-minute film focuses on one small part of that – the seniors at the town’s high school as they try to finish their education under extraordinary circumstances. As Rachel Riederer perfectly summarised when the short premiered on The New Yorker, this is a short that “focusses not on the moment of the fire but on the process of coming back”.
Can you remember your final year at high school? It’s usually a time of burgeoning self-discovery, rebellion and studying, but for the students of Paradise High, it was a time of unsettlement and uncertainty. Many students will have experienced difficult times with their education over the last two years or so, but for these Californian seniors, they found themselves engulfed in a trauma very few will be able to directly relate to.
Using their own personal experiences – Knowles a wildfire survivor himself (which he documented in previous short After the Fire) and Thomas previously reporting on climate refugees – as a catalyst for their film, the duo reveal that “the opportunity to tell a classic coming-of-age story, transplanted to the era of 21st-century climate disaster, became an appealing lens to explore ever-relevant themes of community, grief and resilience”.
“It’s more important than ever that stories like these are told and shared”
With the wildfires covered by news outlets worldwide, the co-directors explain that the “over-saturated media environment helped us find our story”. Deciding to get to the heart of their narrative by going deeper and staying longer, although parts of Last Days at Paradise High play much like fictional high school movies – with scenes of proms and graduation – Knowles and Thomas had some grander aims with their film:
“We hope that the intimate, quiet stories of these young people will offer reassurance to their peers also coming of age in a world increasingly defined by inherited trauma, climate anxiety and economic insecurity. While this burgeoning generation shares an understanding of the impermanence of our world, they also possess the resolve to envision a different, more sustainable and safe world. As climate change makes wildfires like these more frequent, threatening the safety of home for many, and as new crises like Covid-19 disrupt school years and traditions around the world, we feel it’s more important than ever that stories like these are told and shared”.
As you’d expect from the description of Last Days at Paradise High, this is an immersive, emotional short offering genuine insight and its the enveloping quality of Knowles and Thomas’ film, which really makes you feel part of this recovering community and ensures it’s a consistently engaging watch. Spending six months embedded in the lives of the seniors at Paradise High School, the co-directors very much became part of their final year as they “slept on their couches, went to school with them in the morning and occasionally helped with homework”.
While a lot of the film is told through an intimate vérité style, the pair complement this with emotional talking-heads – which they describe as “staged, confessional-like interviews” – where students discuss the effects the fire has had on their lives. Despite the obviously devastating circumstances the students (and their teacher) have found themselves in, the film ends on a more hopeful note, as we witness tears, tattoos and fairground rides. However, before the end titles roll, Knowles and Thomas provide one last sobering moment with a title card about extreme climate-related events, completing the emotional highs and lows of a truly impactful short.
As the seniors of Paradise High have now moved on to new opportunities, so have Knowles and Thomas. With Derek recently releasing another short – which follows a 2019 Seattle City Council campaign that pitted socialist Kshama Sawant against millions of dollars of Amazon PAC money – and now working on a trio of new shorts, Sentinels, Prine(ville) & Reunion, Emily is now focused on her first feature Sirens, which explores the bond system in America and how “more Americans are jailed because they can’t afford bail than any other reason”.