Wednesday, June 12, 2013

One story of a city in the desert

It is difficult to throw a rock in Seattle and not hit a burner, at least it seems that way. So many people have told me of the transformative experience of attending this event, held annually in the middle of the Black Rock desert. I've always remained skeptical and tend to see burners as affluent men and women that use the art and personal transformation as an excuse to take a week away from the real world and party. Meaning, I see Burning Man as mardi gras, in the desert. But stunning photography comes out of the festival each year and Spark: A Burning Man Story was an opportunity to challenge this perception.

That said, Spark was a well made film. Long time burner Steve Brown co-directed the film was Jesse Deeter, who brought to the project a decade of experience from working on Frontline. As a result, the film looks amazing. Central to the film are two artists that are creating giant art pieces for the playa, one is a burning man vetren creating Block Rock City's own wall street and a first time artist working to learn the techniques and raise the funds to build a giant, heart shaped metal shelter. Additionally, the filmmakers had access to the festival founders as well as the resulting corporation that works throughout the year to insure that the infrastructure is in place when the burners arrive. As a result, Spark: A Burning Man Story was a fascinating look at the work that goes in to creating the event, both for the organizers and the artists.

However, Spark: A Burning Man Story is just that, one story. It attempted to remain focused on the behind the scenes preparations, but also gave a brief history of burning man, including footage of the first man-totem bonfire on a San Francisco beach. It also touched upon the evolution of the festival marking numerous ways that burning man has changed with time. And the cameras were even present and rolling when the ticket crisis erupted and camps feared that they would no longer be able to participate due to lack of tickets.

But despite access to the insiders, amazing historical footage, and fortuitously creating a documentary while controversy over the ticket lottery raged, Spark never delved into these more controversial story topics. After showing some really frightening footage, I wanted to see an entire film just on the 1996 Burning Man Festival. There was a death, due to a motorcycle accident and several life threatening injuries due to a vehicle running over a tent in the night. But after showing some footage of a burning man festival that appeared out of control and mentioning 96 as a turning point for the festival, the film didn't detail the events of 1996. As a result, it was difficult to understand how the festival changed as a result. Same with the ticketing kerfuffle. There are kernels of excellent documentaries within Spark, but they were glossed over in favor of making a less controversial film. One that is still highly watchable and informative, but I would have rather seen one of the movies that didn't get made.

For the record, Spark: A Burning Man Story did in a way confirm my personal bias that the festival is an elaborate excuse for affluent, white people to party in the desert. The art that was shown was incredible and the filmmakers did a commendable job of keeping the nudity, sex, and drugs out of the movie, but it was still less ethnically diverse than the typical Hollywood blockbuster.

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