Rachid Dahnoun is a busy man, a creative who’s constantly on the move for work. A Manfrotto Global Ambassador, he’s been an in-demand name in the industry for years. So, working pro bono? Not something he does every day.
But 2020 isn’t every day — especially not in California’s wine country. The region is still recovering from the Glass Fire, a blaze that started on September 27 and lasted for nearly a month, razing 31 wineries, restaurants, and lodges along the way. We’ve profiled Rachid’s work with wineries before, but this project was different.
Across three weeks, he and his five-person team “donated [their] time and resources to tell the story of the people on-the-ground that were directly impacted by this tragic fire.” The group partnered with Food & Wine to get a larger audience for their film Embers & Vines.
This year has been one for the books. If the pandemic wasn’t enough, California has experienced the largest wildfire season on record with over four million acres burned. For much of September and October, it rained ash from the sky and the air quality was some of the worst in the world. It felt apocalyptic to say the least.
Alongside writer Jonathan Christaldi — a collaborator of Rachid’s for three years — the visual storyteller met with numerous winery owners to hear their experiences with one of the scariest events of a very scary year. Because we live in a world where news cycles get refreshed seemingly every hour, time was of the essence for Rachid and company.
I called Jonathan on a Wednesday morning, he got in touch with Food & Wine within an hour, we had the green light that afternoon, and we were shooting by Friday. It happened at lighting speed, and it had to if the project was going to come to fruition.
Start to finish, we cranked this out in about three weeks. We wanted the release to be timely while people in the world still remembered this as a news story. The news cycle is so fast these days it was important to us that our audience connected to the piece as much as possible.
Not only is the news cycle unrelenting in its churn, it’s usually incomplete in its coverage as a result. That was both the case here and part of the impetus for telling this side of the story — the human side. News channels want flames the size of skyscrapers, drone shots that show a whole countryside ablaze, and the occasional sound bite of a devastated resident. Rachid’s team inverted that structure to tell a more thoughtful story.
When a natural disaster happens, the majority of reporting from major news networks is focused on the immediate damage and impact of that disaster.
Don’t get me wrong, the scale of the fires and destruction is pretty sensational, but my team and I aimed to tell this story in a much more thoughtful way — to slow down, let the subjects tell their own story, and have them voice their own opinions.
With Jonathan acting as remote producer and setting up interviews with winery owners, Rachid and his crew got to work. The close-to-home nature of the project meant that no one involved gave working for free a second thought. This was bigger than that.
We worked just as hard or maybe harder than we do on any other project. My team knows what it takes to put out a story like this, and we put our heads down to make this one happen. Honestly, I don’t think any of us really thought about not getting paid for the project. This was simply a story that we felt needed to be told and were honored to tell it.
Though an honor, it was not an easy task. Not least of all because Rachid and co. spoke with people whose entire lives were upended in a matter of days. It takes a deft storyteller to get the tone of the piece right. You want to make sure you’re getting the winery owners’ side of the story without exploiting their tragedy. Because Rachid is so intimately familiar with California’s wineries, he was the perfect person to helm this project.
Emotionally, this was a really hard story to tell. It was raw, the fires were still burning, and between the pandemic and the destruction, everyone was at their breaking point.
Everyone I interviewed was brutally honest about their take on the situation. Nobody was holding back. I believe this comes through in the film and lets the audience connect with those raw emotions. It’s powerful stuff. But sadly, if we don’t do something to reverse climate change and manage our forests better, in 20 years we may look back on this as just the “start” of a much larger problem.
See more of Rachid’s work at rachidphoto.com.
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