Patrice O'Neill's 2004 documentary, "The Fire Next Time", is an emotional, involving look at a beautiful small town that suddenly finds itself facing big changes and whose residents have become unwilling to discuss their differences. The town is Kalispell, a small Montana community once known as "the last best place in America" that's home to a large population and - throughout much of the year - an even larger population of tourists looking to take in the stunning mountains and generally breathtaking scenery that can seems to go for miles in every direction.
In Kalispell, the loggers in the local mills are increasingly finding themselves out of work as mills close or layoff workers. The workers turn their attention to local environmentalists and new environmental laws, blaiming them for the downturn of the local economy. New local radio deejay John Stokes takes the side further, leading rallies against who he calls "eco-Nazis" or "Green Nazis". The environmentalists discuss the impact of logging on the local wildlife, water and forest, among other concerns. Soon, a town that was previously known by locals as a friendly place sees town meetings turn into angry yelling matches - and worse.
Meanwhile, the entire area is changing. Millionaires are buying up homes all around the area and development is taking up any open land available. The result is raised property values and a higher cost of living for locals already trying hard just to make a living. Making matters worse, the local community becomes upset when their concerns about rapid local development are not heard and discussed.
"The Fire Next Time" does visit with both sides of the community and offers their thoughts on not only the environmental issues, but the other issues that are contributing to the way of life changing in the town. The problems happening in Kalispell are happening all over the country, but the small-scale example shown here just illustrates how serious some of these issues are.
The documentary doesn't have all the answers, but it should be watched by all, as it is quite thought-provoking and makes one wish that more people today could be at least a little less divided (on every side) and start really listening to each other. With everything happening today in the country and in the world, one hopes that people can begin to see past their differences and work together for at least a middle ground that can also be a common good. The end of the picture, with the town beginning to come together a year after a forest fire, is quite moving. At the core of the movie, it's really devastating to see this town so divided and volatile, and you want to see them at least come together again or make that first step towards doing so. However, the questions of how Kalispell will address its concerns still remain.
The other main issue that the movie raises is, how do we keep our small towns and their industries/way of life together as the years go by? How can towns whose economies were based on things like logging or mining best and most positively adapt to change and/or have industry regulated enough to satisfy both the industry and limit environmental impact? The excellent 1995 documentary "Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern" (there's another film that should absolutely be viewed if you haven't), informed that there were 6 million American farmers in the 60's, but by the 90's, there were only 2 million. How do small towns today best continue to make products and offer services (a farm, a general store, etc.) locally that are economically viable and support their economy? How do communities in general best address the conflicts that come up on a day-to-day basis and especially come forward when rapid changes start to occur?
"The Fire Next Time" approaches many complex issues (and at 86 minutes, I would have liked to have seen it expand on some aspects more) and while it doesn't always tackle them fully, it gives us a thought-provoking look at the issues many communities face today and how we need to find some sort of way to work together to be able to proceed forward.
VIDEO: "The Fire Next Time" is presented by Docurama in its original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. The film's image quality is generally quite good, with only a few minor concerns. Sharpness and detail are standard, with most scenes looking fairly crisp and others looking a bit softer (although not hazy or blurry.)
The presentation did show a few minor specks on the print used, but it remained clean otherwise, with no pixelation, shimmering or edge enhancement. Colors looked bright and natural, with no smearing or other issues.
SOUND: The stereo soundtrack was perfectly satisfactory, with clear dialogue and no problems.
EXTRAS: An 18-minute interview with director Patrice O'Neill (a general Q & A-style interview about the film and her career), director's bio and trailers. Some deleted scenes (if any) and more information about the town's situation currently would have been nice additions.
Final Thoughts: "The Fire Next Time" looks at the environment and it looks at change happening in small towns, as well as the way that communities can be literally divided by conflict. It's not without some minor concerns (while the ending is positive, I'd like to have heard more about what happened to the community), but this is largely a film that is meant to be thought-provoking. The film doesn't offer all the answers, but I think it encourages people to try and work together and respect others (even who you don't agree with) in order to try to find the answers that will result in a stronger local, national and (maybe someday) global community.