AUSTIN (KXAN) - For seven months, Concordia University students James Headrick and David Reece worked day and night on a film documenting some of the survivors of last year's Bastrop wildfires.
Monday, Sept. 3, the day before the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, that film, " Bastrop : Rising from the Ashes," will premiere at the Bastrop Opera House. Beginning with a 5 p.m. reception, the screening will be free for everyone on the official "Burn List," those who lost property in the burn zone.
Everyone else will pay $5, but all of the proceeds will go back into the Bastrop community to help with recovery efforts.
It all began with a television home-makeover show production at a destroyed house in the fire zone. One hundred and fifty Concordia students volunteered to assist with the project and Headrick volunteered to shoot video to document the process.
During a lull in the shooting, Headrick, camera in hand, wondered off behind the home, into the woods and along a dry creek bed. He was thoroughly horrified by what he saw.
"I walked out there and it just kind of hit me just how expansive the damage was," said Headrick.
"I mean, it was at that point still very grey, just all the ash on the ground, black trees everywhere.
"The feeling was very overwhelming and I started to understand what the people of Bastrop saw every day when they wake up and walk out the front door. That's what they see, a constant reminder of the damage and the pain that came from the fires."
Headrick decided right there and then to launch a feature length documentary project, his first. He sought out Reece, a Concordia classmate for help. The two made their first trip to the burn zone together and Reece, too, was stunned.
"It could just have easily been, you know, my parents' home or my home," he said, "and these people have absolutely nothing; it just completely disintegrated everything. And so I knew there was something special to be told about that."
The filmmakers teamed up with " All About Families," a Bastrop nonprofit group that assists recovering families. AAF gave them a grant to help with the documentary. The agency also served as a go-between, recruiting people whose lives had been decimated by the fire to tell their stories to Headrick and Reece. There was not shortage of takers.
"Throughout the whole process," Headrick said, "I found out a lot of people want to tell their story and, you know, share that so people know what they're going through.
"Because people know that as time goes on, people start to forget about disasters and move on to the next disaster and the aid starts to fade away. Volunteers stop coming.
"So a big piece of this documentary was to try to raise awareness again, to say, 'Hey, these people still need help; they're still struggling; they still need volunteers; they still need money to come into the community and help them rebuild.'"
Among the participants: a ranger at Bastrop State Park who joined firefighters in saving historic structures at the park while his own home burned to the ground.
Then there was the husband and wife, separated from their children in the fire zone on the far side of police barricades. Speaking with the kids on cellphones, the parents agonized as hope appeared to vanish in the smoke.
"My son had told me, 'Dad, we're going to die,'" the father recalled in the film. "He said, 'Dad, we're going to die, Dad. I love you, Dad, and I'll see you later.'
"And right as he told me that, my heart just sunk."
"I told God," the man's wife said, 'If you can't turn the fire off, if it's not your will to turn it off, because I know you have the strength to turn it off, then you send me someone or an angel and get my Amy out."
And then there was the young woman whose home did not burn while all her neighbors lost everything. Having made her way back to the house, she stayed there alone, a gun on her hip.
Sure enough, she heard noises outside. Heading to the carport, she was stunned to find two men and woman rummaging through the family belongings.
"They then came towards me as if to attack," she told the filmmakers. "I then pulled the gun and pointed it at the man closest to me, right in the chest. It's probably the most terrifying moment in my life."
More than 1,600 such stories unfolded as the flames scorched the earth that Labor Day weekend.
But the film also details the remarkable level of cooperation between victims in the fire's aftermath.
"This fire," a voice reads in the documentary, "while it stole so much from so many, left in its path more than charred land and broken homes. It left a tender, caring spirit in its wake.
"I see people caring for each other on a level I've never known before. It's genuine and it's real. It's as if the hearts of each person here reached out and grabbed the closest hand to hold."
Using only a Cannon EOS 5D Mark III digital camera and Zoom H4n digital voice recorder, Headrick and Reece traveled the width and breadth of the fire zone, recording and telling the stories.
"We consider this a passion project," Headrick said, "and by a passion project, we define that as just something we want to do for the community.
"We're not making any money off of this at all. Any money that is from ticket sales or DVDs or anything like that will go right back to Bastrop to support the recovery efforts."
In fact, the filmmakers actually contributed their own money to the project, money they know they will not see again.
"Hopefully, we're going to make something worthwhile for the people of Bastrop," Reece said, "something we can give back to them since they had nothing. But they have a lot to offer and they're really awesome people, really friendly and just have a great spirit about them.
"If just one person who lost a home comes up to me and says, 'Thank you for doing this, it really moved me and it really told me that people care,' that's all I really need; that's all I'm doing it for."
Looking beyond Monday's premiere, another screening is planned for Nov. 1 in North Austin. A new Galaxy movie theatre called "Theatre at the Trails" at 8300 RR 620 North will show the documentary as part of a series of events designed to train staff for the new facility. The $5 cost of tickets for that show will also go back to All About Families for the recovery program.
Two days after that, on Nov. 3, Headrick and Reece will post the film for all to see on their website.
Meanwhile, DVD copies will be available for order at the screenings and online.
So, if you want to know whatever happened to the kids trapped in the fire zone and the woman who confronted the looters, you know where to go.
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