“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
– Fred Rogers
In cases of emergency, families are recommended to develop and practice a home evacuation plan in order to reduce chaos and ensure that everyone gets out ok. But the thing about emergencies is that you can’t always predict when they’re going to happen or how unbelievably devastating they can be. In the opening moments of first-time feature co-directors Gary Matoso’s and Cameron Zohoori’s documentary Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat, we meet and listen to Jenna Dunbar as she drives through Santa Rosa, California, recalling the night that she awoke to find her entire community on fire. In the closing moments of this portion, she states how she never wants to feel the helplessness again, kicking off the exploration into various communities around the country and the ways in which numerous everyday citizens step up to work with their local fire stations, sometimes being the only difference between having enough staff to save a life and tragedy.
Rather than follow one singular person, Odd Hours elects to follow locations and select a few people within them to speak with and drill into. This approach allows the audience to get a bit more immersed in each location, allowing the specificity of their needs within the community to come up. So while one location may focus more on tracking down lost livestock (and the tools/training that requires), another may address local responses to wildfires, and yet another to traffic accidents. Doing this not only enables Matoso and Zohoori to spotlight the ways in which firefighters as a whole fill in gaps as an emergency service provider, but how including volunteers not only bolsters their number, it takes advantage of their local knowledge while addressing a crisis. More than this, however, this approach of choosing locations and then people enables the documentary to showcase the similarities in needs across the United States. Whether it’s Texas, Virginia, Nebraska, California, Washington, or Maryland; whether someone is Hispanic, Salvadorian, Black, Asian, Jewish, or Caucasian; there’s a commonality to each individual who ends up volunteering with their local fire station. Sometimes it’s about answering a higher calling, fulfilling a desire to help others, while it could be like Dunbar who wants to ensure others don’t feel as she did, or maybe someone, like Barbara Williams, just wanted to be a secretary and found themselves in EMT training. The stories we listen to as we watch these daring men and women at work are inspiring, even if they occur in a period where their funding and resources are dwindling despite the necessity of their work.
The majority of Odd Hours doesn’t have any kind of internal clock, it’s an exploratory doc, afterall. It isn’t a traditional chronological narrative that contains a regular beginning, middle, and end. Matoso and Zohoori include visits to a training camp in Washington state amidst the locations of established volunteer crews. We get to know the participants about as well as we do the other individuals who provide the talking head interviews in other portions and we check in with them on their 12-week journey (weekends only) to understand what being a firefighter requires. This inclusion creates a false sense of time passing through the doc, an anchor of sorts for the audience to be able to know where we are in the film as a whole. It’s smart as it does this while providing insight into what some volunteers experience, specifically the speed with which they need to pick up skills to use in the field (a suggestion of what the others we meet and listen to are also likely to have completed). In all the segments, there’s no way of knowing *when* or in what order Matoso and Zohoori spoke to the participants. It’s plausible that it’s been since Spring 2020 as a few people in meetings are wearing masks and a few of the Maryland firefighters are masked when dealing with patients, but they could also just be following a protocol that’s in place regardless of COVID-19. Frankly, it doesn’t matter how recently these people were interviewed as their experience volunteering, the ways in which their selflessness is presented, that’s timeless.
It’s important to remember to set expectations with Odd Hours. The film isn’t interested in exploring the history of firefighting, the causes of climate change that make some areas more susceptible to wildfires than ever before, or identifying ways in which public action could shift the narrative in order to garner additional financial support. Though sponsored by John Deere, Odd Hours doesn’t even feel like an advertisement for their equipment, even as quite a few of the locations featured in the doc are rural, farming areas. Instead, Matoso and Zohoori are laser-focused on one thing and one thing only: demonstrating that regardless of your age, gender, and faith, if you want to be a help to your community, there’s almost always an opportunity. Even more, without those who engage their community actively, to seek ways to take part, our communities as a whole may collapse due to the lack of personnel, a threat that’s larger than any accident or natural disaster.
By possessing a clear perspective and approach, Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat is not only an engaging watch, but an inspiring one. To see how the various locations get creative to solve their internal problems in an effort to better address what they communities need is admirable. None featured come off as in need of exaltation or appreciation, rather, Matoso’s and Zohoori’s smart selection of people to talk makes it easier for anyone watching to think “they’re like me,” effectively bridging the gap between “I can’t do this” to “maybe I can.” There are moments of repetition, moments where it feels a little too sweet, a little too saccharine, but there’s never an insincere moment. This is what separates Odd Hours from being a general recruitment tool and transforms it into something aspirational.
In select theaters, on VOD, and digital July 7th, 2023.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD August 29th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.