Documentary Releases: Wildland (2018) - Reviewed

Originally released on television as part of the continuing PBS documentary series Independent Lens before being expanded to feature length by twenty-two minutes, Wildland by documentary filmmakers Alex Jablonski and Kahlil Hudson offers an unprecedented look from the frontlines inside one of America’s most dangerous occupations: wildland firefighting.  

Unlike the popular notion of hooking up a hose to a hydrant, these firefighters instead use a myriad of age old hands-on techniques through the use of shovels, rakes and pulaskis to break up the soil and control the spreading of the fire.  From the outset of the uninitiated, it looks basic but don’t let that fool you.  This is hard, daunting work that is no less dangerous (if not more) than trying to extinguish a skyscraping inferno. 

Filmed between two wildfire seasons, Wildland follows a band of new recruits up through basic training in a regimen not dissimilar from the strictness and readiness of the military.  Along the way we meet a variety of trainees including but not limited to former firefighters struggling with their own demons whether it be drug/alcohol related or involving stops in and out of jail.  We’re also graced with the presence of many young and determined individuals who traveled across the country to get a shot at becoming a firefighter. 

While something of an ensemble piece, we come to learn how even after an aged firefighter can no longer put himself in the line of duty, he can impart whatever experience and knowledge he has amassed to a whole new generation of firefighters.  Moreover, an impression is built that many of these trainees were once lost souls who found purpose and meaning to their lives through this life saving profession.

Photographed digitally and composed in panoramic widescreen by co-director Kahlil Hudson, one of the first things that strikes the viewer is the use of anamorphic lenses.  With particular curvature slightly bending the sides of the image for a wider angled shot, Wildland is a televised documentary with the look of a prominent theatrical feature film. 

In all likelihood the raw footage was shot in 1.78:1 open matted before being masked to 2.35:1 but the finished result is startling nonetheless for a PBS documentary film.  That these lenses were used to capture the firefighting training in action as well as the applied use of firefighting in the thick of dense wildfires only enhances the documentary’s stature as a fine looking piece of nonfiction.

Some like myself may think going in we know what is ahead of the average firefighter, especially the ones fighting wildfires, but as soon as we see these trainees digging through the soil and jointly pushing logs down a hill I realized I just how naive I was about the art of firefighting.  An eye opening and engaging slice of reality, Wildland is a visually arresting glimpse into the world of wildland firefighting and the walks of life the profession draws from all over the country.  If not for the engrossing true stories each trainee carries with him, then definitely watch for the stunning cinematography which will make you rethink the possibilities of the documentary form.

- Andrew Kotwicki