If you are not familiar with the annual “Burning Man” event, thinkWoodstock meets Mad Max, although its organizers and proponents frown on painting the event into any kind of corner. The “about” section of the event’s website says that “trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind.” Nevertheless, the new documentary film, Spark: A Burning Man Story, attempts to explain the alleged unexplainable.
Burning Man stems from a small group of free-spirited artists in the San Francisco area who got together to burn a wooden effigy on the beach in 1986; and the little beach event has grown to an annual gathering of 50,000 attendees and has moved to the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, where hippies, yuppies and wannabe bohemians of every type meet up and enjoy a week of crazy self-expression, self-reliance and communal craziness.
An old Eagles song says, “you call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye,” and this seems to be the theme of Spark: A Burning Man Story as the film delves into the history of the event and the biographical lives of its founders, and looks at the event’s popularity and the myriad of problems that have come along with the enormous growth of Burning Man.
As the movie appears to have been sanctioned by the Burning Man organizers (Black Rock City LLC), I was surprised by the very honest look at their issues with ticketing and with trying to maintain the “self-reliance” principles as originally established by founder, Larry Harvey. Guidelines that also include “radical inclusion” and “decommodification,” meaning they will welcome strangers and reject commercial sponsorships; rules that has proven difficult to stand by as the event has grown.
The behind-the-scenes politics and problem-solving in this film was fascinating to watch and it was very interesting to learn some of the reasons that people have become so religiously dedicated to this event that is not necessarily very easy to participate in. I felt the movie does a good job of addressing complications, like well-to-do attendees skirting the “self-reliance” rules, without becoming a downer or focusing for too long on any one issue.
There are a handful of artists profiled in this film and some of the large-scale usable art that you’ll see is amazing and plays a big role in the Burning Man experience. With the colorful costumes, unusual vehicles and unconventional living quarters, one could say this entire party is a gigantic, organic and ever-changing work of art, and it is inspiring to watch it come together.
I applaud the creators of this film for showing the good, bad and ugly parts of this event and not making a one-sided promo-piece for something that is already incredibly popular. Unfortunately, the Nevada Burning Man event has grown so fashionable that the Spark movie might be as close as you’ll ever get to it – and with its heat, dirt, noise and other craziness, that’s close enough for me.