CONTENTS INVENTORY | a participatory documentary co-created with neighbors

The CZU Lightning Complex fires ignited in Northern California on August 16, 2020, after a freak thunderstorm produced 11,000 bolts of lightning. The fire burned over 900 homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where I have lived for the past twelve years, as well as the core of Big Basin Redwoods state park. During the five weeks that I was displaced from my home, I thought about stuff all the time. Sometimes in the middle of the night I would wake up in a panic, thinking about an object left behind that I could never replace: my fifth grade journal; a dish shaped like a pineapple that I bought in Portugal; a jar of homemade jam made out of pluots from our tree that I might never see again; a photo album of baby pictures made right after my son was born thirteen years ago. While I was very lucky to find my home standing with only smoke damage after the fire, I spent many sleepless nights in August and September—while news about my home was unclear and changing on a daily basis—processing deep feelings of loss, and, on the other side of the fire I felt a powerful urge to make a document of this moment in time together with my neighbors.

When my parents left their Communist Romania home as political defectors in the late 60s, they were allowed to each bring just one suitcase out of the country. Sentimental objects from the past were scarce in my immigrant childhood—I grew up listening to my mother talk about a childhood spent rummaging through her grandmother’s boxes of lace, ribbons, and buttons—fantasy boxes of abundant treasure that felt larger than life in my imagination.

When a homeowners insurance claimant experiences the total loss of a home, insurance companies often require a comprehensive contents inventory to be prepared—a spreadsheet listing every single object that was in the destroyed home: every light bulb, butter dish, ashtray, computer cable, pack of sponges and decorative ceramic rooster gets enumerated in a detailed document that is often dozens of pages long. The process of reconstructing or remembering these exhaustive lists of objects can be one of the most painful and traumatizing parts of losing a home. According to insurance advocacy nonprofit United Policyholders:

Listing all of your items takes time, particularly when you have been through a trauma. Sitting down and recalling room by room is one way to get started. Make use of all lists you can find to help you remember. Completing your inventory can be emotionally draining. Enlisting friends and family to help saves time and is a valuable source of emotional support. The better you are able to document destroyed and damaged property and the cost of replacement and repairs, the better your insurance settlement will be. In most cases, written or photographic proof of destroyed items will also have been destroyed in a fire.

Over the nine months following the fire, I began inviting neighbors who had lost their homes to share the objects that they had lost, found, or saved from the fire. While making an insurance inventory is a traumatic process for many, I wanted to spend time filming conversations about things with neighbors in a way that felt healing, that honored and respected the lives we built and the objects in our spaces that felt meaningful: Is there a special object that you saved when you evacuated that you want to share? I asked my neighbors. Is there something you are haunted by leaving behind that you wish you had been able to take? Something lost that you found by sifting ash? What objects have you replaced since evacuating? What is irreplaceable? What feels like “just stuff” that doesn’t really matter? Can we make a different kind of “contents inventory” together that is an emotional map of what home means to us?

Clearing a burned home and preparing cleared land to rebuild after a fire is an enormously labor-intensive multi-step process that takes months, including debris removal, soil testing, tree removal, hugely expensive geological surveys, erosion control, and county permitting. It’s been surprising to me to learn what a long process fire recovery is: Months after news cameras have moved on to new crises and as the one year anniversary of the wildfire approaches (along with a new fire season), my neighbors are still in full time recovery mode. Debris clearance had barely started in December, four months after the fire. Ten months on from the fire, some neighbors are just beginning to get their final land clearance and others are still waiting. Building contractors are in impossibly high demand and lumber costs are soaring. No one has broken ground on rebuilding yet. Some are learning that they may not be able to rebuild at all—many mountain homes were built decades ago, before current building and fire codes were adopted, and homeowners are now are faced with heartbreaking situations where homes that had been in place for decades are deemed geologically or otherwise impossible to rebuild safely. Other homeowners were uninsured or underinsured, with coverage amounts that have failed to factor in the astronomical cost of building in one the most expensive housing markets in the country. Because the wildfire triggered an official state of emergency declaration, there is currently a state mandate in place that forbids insurance carriers from dropping homeowner’s policies for the first year after the fire, but everyone is waiting and worrying about the impending insurance crisis that is inevitably coming after the one year mark. While these issues are not all addressed directly in my film, I hope the film points to these underlying structural questions around risk, restitution, insurance, and the uncertain future in more subtle ways.  

CONTENTS INVENTORY unfolds as a durational project that is invested in making a space of reflective and patient encounter. The conversations documented in the film take place outside, often on the burned land owned by those who share their stories. Placing these encounters in the physical space of the fire’s devastating aftermath creates a dialogue between the film’s participants and setting, centering ideas of place and land. Landscape also subtly reminds us of the passage of time, as heaps of burned debris in the fall give way to clear-cut forest land in spring, and as charred trees begin to show new growth. Imagined as an antidote to the quick-cut “crisis” orientation of mainstream media portrayals of natural disaster, Contents Inventory creates an alternate temporality of climate trauma that is slow and unfolding over time. 

What do we save or archive? What things matter and why? What can we let go of? What do we lose when our homes burn down? When is it liberating to start all over again? What is the relationship between objects and memory? Between home and the stuff in it? Why do we have so much stuff anyway? What is it like to return home after a disaster and find a place that is profoundly transformed, not the space of comfort that we left? What does the future feel like after a collective trauma? This project is an experiment in sharing our feelings about home, objects, things—what we carry with us, what it means when things get destroyed or lost, and what home feels like at a moment in time when the idea of home becomes fragile—threatened by natural disaster, financial crisis, or other large scale structural forces.

July, 2021