The annual Burning Man event in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert is a bit of a mystery for those of us who exist outside certain artistic circles, and as such a bevy of assumptions have built up regarding what exactly happens there for a week each year. It’s a given for example that there are drugs, sex parties, and s’mores, and it’s a known fact that the event’s final night sees a bee-filled cage placed over an outsider’s head before the unlucky soul is locked in a giant, wooden figure and burned alive.
But what else is Burning Man about?
Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter set out to answer that question with the new doc Spark: A Burning Man Story, and while it conveniently neglects to comment on the bees it does offer an insight into the event’s history and what it takes to organize a gathering with nearly 60,000 visitors. That glimpse behind closed doors seems to come with a price tag though in that the doc could almost pass for a promotional video for the event itself. But at the very least it’s a promo video featuring some gorgeous nighttime photography.
“I drew a line on the ground, and I said on the other side of this line everything will be different. And everything has been different.”
Burning Man essentially began in 1986 when founder Larry Harvey invited some friends to San Francisco’s Baker Beach to hang out, share some drinks and burn a large, wooden man beside the ocean. The idea grew, as did the attendees, and it was eventually moved to the Nevada desert to take advantage of the vast, open space. Built around ten core principles covering everything from Radical Inclusion/Self-reliance/Self-expression to Participation and Civic Responsibility, visitors are encouraged to treat their stay as one big “what if?” scenario. What if they could dress however they wanted without being judged? What if they didn’t have to live in a corporate-fueled, capitalistic society? What if they just didn’t feel like wearing pants today?
Nothing is for sale within the confines of Burning Man aside from ice and coffee (?), meaning the rest of your needs should be met through your own preparedness or within an encouraged “gifting” economy between friends old and new. It’s all about expressing yourself through costumes, personality, and art, and while those first two can be found at most big festivals it’s in the area of art where Burning Man truly distinguishes itself. Large installations dot the landscape for people to admire and experience from statues to actual, inhabitable structures, but the most visually arresting (aside from the crepe-paper canoodling forest of course) are the vehicles. Like a Mad Max movie with a bigger, more creative art department, elaborate vehicles designed to look like homes, snails, boats and more parade around illuminated at night with never-ending strands of neon lights.
The visual side of things are well-represented here to the point where dozens of poster-ready images grace the screen showing some amazing man-made creations set against the natural beauty of the night sky or the sun piercing a sand storm. But the human element is far more obscured.
Much time is devoted to last year’s ticketing fiasco brought on by a new lottery system, but mentions of drugs are limited to a single throwaway line about the one year an impaired fest-goer drove over two tents containing people. Are we to believe this isn’t an event with heavy drug use and possible transactions? It seems disingenuous to promote an event built on radical freedoms without acknowledging the more unsavory and potentially illegal aspects therein.
Even more strikingly absent is the common man/woman’s idea of what Burning Man is actually about. Beyond the ten principles and the free expression, what does it actually mean to people? Several of the event’s co-founders act as talking heads throughout, but we never hear from basic ticket-holders as to what they think of the experience and what, if anything, they get out of it aside from a colorful vacation. We do see a couple artists preparing their creations for the event, but their real-world struggles are teased without conclusion.
Spark: A Burning Man Story offers some truly gorgeous visuals and answers a few basic questions, but it could just as easily be called an “official” story thanks to a relatively tame exploration of the activities and personalities within. Nary a mention of drug use? Only a brief glimpse of some bare asses and a topless woman? No complications involving the portapotties, the lack of readily available water, the dangerous flame-inducing properties of fire? Maybe the lack of discussion in these areas is itself an answer to the question of why they’re not covered here. Maybe Burning Man and its participants are far more conventional and “normal” than our assumptions give them credit for. And maybe an outsider is burned alive after having his head locked in a cage filled with bees.
The Upside: Some beautiful nighttime visuals; answers some basic questions about the event; a joyful look at creativity
The Downside: Downplays potentially negative or controversial aspects of the event; neglects the more human elements
On the Side: This year’s Burning Man runs August 26th through September 2nd.
Spark: A Burning Man Story is now playing in limited release.