In a cinematic documentary set to air on Sunday, Nov. 13, on MSNBC, producers Leonardo Dicaprio, Harri Grace and Chloe Leland capture the anguish of devastation and intertwine it with hope. “From Devil’s Breath” is a compelling story of human resilience in the face of a horrific natural event. We were able to preview the 40-minute film in advance of its primetime showing and found it both inspiring and emotional.

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A devastating wildfire in Portugal

The story opens with an introduction to a massive 2017 wildfire that broke out in the rural Pedrógão Grande municipality in Portugal. Following weeks of scorching hot, dry weather and drought, several fires raged, culminating in 66 confirmed deaths and hundreds of serious injuries. All evidence points to climate change as the catalyst for the destructive fires.

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This human tragedy mirrors similar stories around the world, each of which reflects the changing climate and the need for human action. The ecosystem is clearly out of balance. Water shortages, dust storms, rising temperatures, melting glaciers, flooding, landslides, drought and record temperatures are just a few of the indicators. The causes are undeniably linked with human behavior, which means the answers come from reversing those behaviors.

Firefighters fighting a wildfire

It’s also no surprise humans are the planet’s nemesis, with our failure to balance resources and consumption. Fires like those in Portugal tell the story all too well. Land that is not cared for cannot repel fire. In Portugal and myriad other situations, it provides copious fuel to propel the fire, with grievous results.

“From Devil’s Breath” is not just about a fire that happened. It’s a bigger picture of why it happened and what we need to do in response.

Balancing hope in devastation

As the trailer from MSNBC reveals, “FROM DEVIL’S BREATH tells the unlikely story of two remarkable narratives that come crashing together; the extraordinary, inspiring community of survivors of the deadly 2017 wildfires in Portugal, fighting to ensure what they’ve lived through can never happen again; and a revolutionary, world-changing scientific discovery which could help protect us all from the climate emergency.”

To balance the scales of the heart-wrenching loss within the community, the director of the film, Orlando Von Einsiedel, adds equal amounts of education, hope and optimism. He uses the situation in Portugal as a micro-example of how humans hold the power to set the environment back on course. Additionally, climate change expert Tom Crowther takes center stage, putting his vast knowledge to work in the region. Together with local experts and volunteers, they initiate a plan for recovery. Moreover, they outline a future that is resistant to a repeat of this devastating event.

To understand the conditions that set the stage for the Portugal fires, we have to acknowledge all the working parts that the film thoroughly presents. Watch it to gather a complete understanding.

We can use that information as a template for similar situations all around the globe. Mitigating future disasters means understanding the issues that are prevalent at a regional level. While each region is somewhat different in the primary contributing factors, we’re talking about unhealthy soil, a lack of biodiversity and an emphasis on profits over the needs of the planet.

A woman walking with a farming tool to plant trees

The right direction to go

There’s a lot of chatter about planting trees to combat global warming. There are initiatives at work to accomplish that goal with countries, non-profit organizations, companies and citizens jumping into action. In fact, there’s an organized movement to plant one trillion trees before 2030. This is the hope for stability the next generation can build on.

Trees are the lungs of the world, absorbing and storing carbon dioxide and releasing the oxygen we need. But, as this film explains, planting random trees isn’t the answer. For an optimally healthy ecosystem with resilient soil and plants, we need to plant a variety of trees. When we plant too many of the same kinds of trees, they compete for resources, stripping the land of nutrients. Biodiverse forests, however, complement each other. Therefore, they create a strong and adaptive environment. 

While thousands of people around the world work towards a shared goal of planting a diverse blend of native plants to restore balance, others feel threatened by these actions. Plants are at the very foundation of many industries, from pharmaceuticals to paper to food, fibers, wood and essential oils. Efforts to replace crops with native trees and plants threaten local economies in the short term. It’s an ugly fact that stems from our longstanding mismanagement of natural resources.

Now profits, culture, and entire communities stand to be affected by corrective measures like replanting forests. Through education, financial assistance and shared planning, the short-term discomfort can evolve into a healthy ecosystem alongside a healthy economy.

When and where to watch 

In addition to the showing this Sunday, Nov. 13, at 7 PM PST on MSNBC, the film will also stream via PEACOCK and re-air on MSNBC on Nov. 19 at 7 PM PST. The film is an episode in the documentary series on the MSNBC station called “The Turning Point Series,” executive produced by recognizable comedian, writer, producer, political commentator, actor and “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah.

+ MSNBC

Images courtesy of MSNBC and Lynsey Addario