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 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.
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.
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.