The voices of CZU: Peter Gelblum’s new film tells survivors’ stories in their own words

Actor Scott Kravitz plays the role of Boulder Creek fire chief Mark Bingham
Actor Scott Kravitz plays the role of Boulder Creek fire chief Mark Bingham in Peter Gelblum’s new film on the CZU fires of 2020.
(Screen capture from ‘“The CZU Fire In Their Own Words.”)

It’s Santa Cruz’s version of “verbatim theater”: The drama comes solely from people telling their stories to an audience, and the script comes directly from first-hand accounts, as seen in Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” about the aftermath of the Rodney King riots, and “The Laramie Project” about the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard. You can catch “The CZU Fire In Their Own Words” in August in Ben Lomond, at the Del Mar in downtown Santa Cruz and elsewhere around the county.

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Has it only been two years?

Has it already been two years?

The catastrophe officially known as the CZU Lightning Complex fires ranks with the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake as perhaps the most traumatic event in Santa Cruz County’s history. It destroyed more than 900 homes and deeply wounded the communities of Bonny Doon, the San Lorenzo Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains.

As with many traumas of that magnitude, CZU has distorted the perspective of time, largely because it feels as though it exists both in the past and in the present. It continues to exert an influence on the many lives it affected. And though the fires are gone, their haunting afterimage remains, and both the telling and the hearing of the stories of the survivors is emerging as a key component in the community’s process of healing.

Boulder Creek resident Peter Gelblum is giving those stories the respect they deserve in his new film, “The CZU Fire In Their Own Words,” which is screening at various sites around Santa Cruz County in the coming weeks, including Park Hall in Ben Lomond on Aug. 7, and at the Del Mar in downtown Santa Cruz on Aug. 16, the anniversary of the date the fires started.

For years, Gelblum has been a central figure, as a director and board member, at Mountain Community Theater, based in Ben Lomond. In fact, his new film was originally written as a stage play to be produced at MCT. But the lingering effects of COVID-19 convinced him to make it into a film.

“In Their Own Words” is an example of what’s called “verbatim theater,” in which the drama comes solely from people telling their stories to an audience, and the script comes directly from first-hand accounts. Gelblum pointed to Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” about the aftermath of the Rodney King riots, and “The Laramie Project” about the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard as prime examples of the verbatim approach.

“Words” draws from the experiences of a handful of local people who lost their homes and, in some cases, their livelihoods and community in the CZU tragedy. Though it employs, as its title implies, the verbatim testaments of survivors, the film uses local actors to deliver those lines. Well-known Santa Cruz theater personalities such as Karin Babbitt, Scott Kravitz and Helene Simkin Jara take on the personas of a number of locals who tell their compelling stories of having lived through CZU. Those locals include Boulder Creek fire chief Mark Bingham, Big Basin Redwoods State Park ranger Susan Blake and restaurateur Jenny Wu, as well as homeowners Matt and Mandy Lariz, Steve and Marj Young, Brian Garrahan, Joan Donato, and Andrew and Mavis Ring. (The Rings’ children, Isaiah and Hadassah, were the only survivors to play themselves in the film.)

Gelblum enlisted the support of filmmakers Erik Gandolfi and Andrew Crocker, as well as sound engineer Steve Edmonds and lighting technician Larry Cuprys. As his actors spoke directly to camera, he also included a variety of images — still photos, videos, even paintings — from photographers and artists “SLV Steve” Kuehl, Shmuel Thaler, Kevin Painchaud, Kara Capaldo, Sean McLean, Greg Cutsinger and Jason Knowles.

The result is a compelling oral-history-style documentary of the CZU fires that alights on many different aspects of the experience, both tragic and heartening. Central to the film is the heartbreaking trajectory of the fires’ span of destruction — the first impressions of the lightning storms early on Aug. 16, 2020, followed by a growing unease, the confusion and fear of evacuation, the maddening limbo of uncertainty, and the crushing revelation of devastation and loss.

On top of that framing narrative, the film touches on the ambivalence that many felt toward Cal Fire, which was dealing with fires up and down the state at that time, the anger and resentment aimed at some insurance companies that have not delivered what they had promised, the life-threatening heroism and selflessness of many local volunteer firefighters and even private citizens, and the bonds of kindness and commonality that the tragedy revealed.

Director Peter Gelblum
Director Peter Gelblum had originally intended his new film on the CZU fires to a be a stage play, until lingering pandemic restrictions convinced him to make it into a film.
(Via Peter Gelblum)

Gelblum said the verbatim-theater technique works best with events like CZU, potentially life-changing crisis points with continually unfolding effects. “It’s got to be some event that affects a lot of people,” he said, “but is also amenable to having some kind of universal impact. We were talking the other day about who might enjoy this film, outside of Santa Cruz County, and somebody said, ‘Well, pretty much anybody who lives in the West.’”

Most of the actors in the film had known or worked with Gelblum before, and some were themselves evacuated from their homes during the CZU fires. Using actors, instead of the real-life survivors, allowed Gelblum to create an emotional momentum in the film. The words and accounts of the survivors are often so powerful that shows of emotion might get in the way of their impact. In other, more reflective moments, emotion became a key component in communicating a sense of profound loss and dislocation.

The film made its public debut earlier this month at the Boulder Creek Rec Hall. In the process of shooting and editing, Gelblum had seen the completed film dozens of times on his laptop. But seeing it on a big screen, with other people, in one of the communities most deeply affected by the fires, his community, “I just found it very moving and very powerful.”

Gelblum still gets emotional when talking of one specific part of the CZU story, the valor of the local volunteer firefighters. As played by actor Scott Kravitz, Boulder Creek fire chief Mark Bingham said, “Ultimately, I want everyone to know how much these firefighters care about this town. There wasn’t a second when anybody here said, ‘I think we need to go now.’ Several of our crew members lost a lot of the same stuff that other people did. But everyone just stayed here.” He also referred to others, such as local loggers and tree companies, as “guardian angels” for their efforts.

“All the fire departments that came to help, including Cal Fire, would ultimately leave an area because it was too dangerous,” said Gelblum, speaking with difficulty through emotion. “But the local guys, they just wouldn’t leave.”

“The CZU Fire In Their Own Words” will be screened in various venues around Santa Cruz County, including Aug. 16 at the Del Mar in Santa Cruz. Admission is free for all screenings, but a $10 donation is suggested. All proceeds go to the local volunteer fire departments and Community Foundation’ Santa Cruz County’s Fire Recovery Fund.

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