Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell is a piercing social analysis of the impacts and outcomes of disasters, and within it, she critiques Hollywood depictions of disaster and its aftermath as tools of power. While disasters cut away at the physical world around you, Solnit argues, humanity and goodwill rise up because it is civic life and our bonds with other humans that engender a joy that prevails.
Below are five artistic films that contrast with the Hollywood blockbusters Solnit urges us to resist. These films contend with elements of A Paradise Built in Hell, including the communities forged after disaster strikes, common acts of kindness and decency, and the strength of people longing to be seen in the face of catastrophe.
In the meta second part of Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy, the fictional director of the first movie, Where Is the Friend’s House?, returns to the two villages featured in the earlier film. He hopes to determine if the actors with whom he worked remain alive after the 1990 earthquake that devastated northern Iran. The fictional director stops his car along the way to drive people carrying oil, water, toilet basins, and other essentials a few feet up a hill or all the way to their destinations. Kiarostami employs long, continuous shots to show countless villages laboring together to repair the damage wrought by the earthquake. The fictional director also stops to ask for directions and to listen to stories of survivors, piecing together a picture of the terror of the earthquake. Kiarostami shows no images of the quake itself. This recalls Solnit’s assertion that when people face disaster, we acquire true information from one another rather than from the media. In one particularly sweet scene, a group works together to set up an antenna on a hill above a makeshift town of tents to watch the World Cup.
People panic in the Titanic’s final minutes, rushing to find a safe way into the water, but a group of musicians pick up their instruments to play for the ship’s passengers one last time. This simple kindness in the 1958 docudrama directed by Roy Ward Baker cuts through scenes of hysteria as one of the world’s most well-known disasters unfolds in what feels like real time. Similarly, a ship’s butler walks through lower decks offering advice to a couple who have decided to survive the wreck together. On deck, snatches of conversation between women offering each other the last spot on a lifeboat (“You have children waiting at home”) can be heard as the camera glides through the frenzy. When the ship plunges beneath the surface, people in lifeboats attempt to return to rescue other survivors, rendering the earlier cries in the film of “every man for themselves” mute. Certain realistic scenes, such as the third class being locked in the bowels of the sinking ship, are harrowing, but Baker also highlights kindness. A crew member throws chairs into the sea for others to grab. A sailor directs survivors on how to keep a lifeboat from capsizing.
This four-part documentary, directed by Spike Lee, showcases the rage and deep grief felt by New Orleans residents during and after Hurricane Katrina. By focusing on the utter lack of a humane response from the United States government, the documentary holds accountable the powerful, giving voice to those who continue to harbor true love for their city, even as they are ignored and cast aside by their country. Resident Phyllis Montana-Leblanc says, “I am not leaving New Orleans, Louisiana, because I was born here in 1963 on December 24, and this is where the fuck I’m gonna die at, whether you try to drown me or I die naturally. I’m gonna stay here until the end.” Similarly, Lee includes interviews with Black New Orleanians discussing their culture and history, as well as footage of the first Mardi Gras after the hurricane. Community and joy are desired, even in times of heartbreak. As resident Gralen B. Banks says in the documentary, “We need Mardi Gras. For our city, this is our healing.”
Starring Jeanette MacDonald and Clark Gable, this classic Hollywood MGM film features singing, romance, and a spectacular depiction of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Although the disaster in this film doesn’t strike until close to the end, the aftermath gives us reconciliation. The city is brought together through tragedy as MacDonald reprises the song “San Francisco” in a campsite set up for survivors. She is surrounded by fellow San Franciscans, who join her in song before they march together toward a brighter future. This mirrors Solnit’s own fond recollection of her and her friend’s experiences after the Loma Prieta earthquake when people walked the streets to freely, even jovially, share experiences with those not in their usual social ambits.
This 40-minute Netflix documentary tells of the fast-moving Camp Fire, which consumed the town of Paradise, California, in 2018. Opening on the night before the fire, the movie presents the 911 dispatch call warning of flames in the remote community of Pulga. In spite of the terror and chaos, people help one another. Two teachers shepherd their kids onto a bus as burning branches fall around them on the playground. On one bus, they pray they will die of smoke inhalation before getting “back to work” supporting their students. Meanwhile, the driver on the other bus rips off his shirt to tear and use as masks. Fire in Paradise concludes on a note of longing for community. Residents describe anxieties about returning to a town without family and friends and hope people will remember to help Paradise rebuild.