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The Embers of a Childhood Lost

Mar 02, 2020 | 831 videos
Video by Whitney Legge

The first thing Whitney Legge noticed at the Red Cross shelter was that, in the midst of so much chaos, the children were building houses. These kids and their families had just been evacuated from the path of a California wildfire that was raging in their hometown of Santa Rosa. They didn’t yet know it, but many were already homeless. At the temporary shelter, the kids sat alone, Legge told me, “and built homes for animals and playhouses for other kids.”


When it engulfed Northern California in 2017, the Tubbs Fire was the most destructive in the state’s history, incinerating more than 2,800 homes and killing 20 people. Legge’s short documentary One Thing in Nothing, premiering on The Atlantic today, was filmed in the aftermath of the devastation. The poetic film features interviews with some of the children Legge met at the shelter as they sift through the ashes of their former home. Some of the kids talk about what they lost; others discuss the things they chose to take with them as they fled the flames.


Legge was impressed by the unique blend of honesty, playfulness, and wistfulness that characterized the kids’ perspectives on their loss. “They commented on how silly they felt for having grabbed such little things” from their house, Legge said. “One very young girl said she wished she had grabbed something that reminded her a little bit more of home.”


The film’s 16-mm black-and-white cinematography lends it a dreamlike quality, as if the imagery of decimated landscapes and charred objects were filtered through the lens of a painful kind of childhood nostalgia. Legge’s unexposed film was accidentally exposed to light leaks, which she decided to leave in—the flickers, she said, “are a visual metaphor for memory and fire.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.