New Documentary Captures Existential Crisis of Burning Man, Annual Artistic Bacchanal in Nevada Desert

Keeping the cameras rolling during trying times resulted in an insightful examination of the world-famous event.

In 2012, after 26 years of ballooning in popularity, Burning Man was on the verge of popping. And Steve Brown’s documentary crew was there with cameras rolling.

A year earlier, the entrepreneur and first-time filmmaker set about making a feature film that centered on a trio of artists as they struggled to realize their visions for Burning Man, a week-long gathering in the Nevada desert that takes place around Labor Day each year. When the Burning Man Organization (BMORG) granted the film access to behind-the-scenes meetings at its San Francisco headquarters, Brown and co-director Jessie Deeter could not have anticipated what was in store.  

On the heels of selling out for the first time in 2011, three times as many people applied for tickets in 2012 as there were tickets available. This sent ticketless attendees—called “Burners,” many of whom contribute art cars, theme camps, art installations, music and more—into a frenzy, and forced organizers to reckon with the possibility that the event had outgrown itself.

“For a while it seemed that we might have filmed the last Burning Man ever,” Brown says of the 2011 installment, which they documented for the film.

As the crew captured tense debates that erupted among Burning Man’s leaders, the original plan morphed into “a much more interesting and important story.”

“In hindsight, I guess we were very fortunate that [BMORG] trusted us to keep the cameras rolling during some very trying and challenging times,” says Brown.

The result is Spark: A Burning Man Story, which is currently screening across the country. The film's theatrical release hits New York and Los Angeles Aug. 16 and the Bay Area in early September. Viewers hoping for a voyeuristic montage of desert partying won’t find it in this documentary, much to the delight of Burners, who will be the first to tell you that Burning Man is not a spectator event. (Although, rest assured, there are plenty of visuals of that iconic, kaleidoscopic landscape.)

Instead, Spark weaves together an insightful examination of the dreams that must be conquered for this fleeting city to survive.

For Katy Boynton, one of the three artists followed, Burning Man lit a fire in her to learn how to weld, a skill she honed while volunteering on “Bliss Dance,” Marco Cochrane’s behemoth statue that now greets visitors to San Francisco’s Treasure Island.

The film tags along as Boynton, then on the verge of living out of her car and scrambling to support herself, toils to birth her own Burning Man art installation, the 12-by-15-foot steel sculpture known as “Heartfullness.” The piece, which debuted on the playa in 2012, is made to look like a heart that has shattered and been patched back together.

Meanwhile, military veteran and performance artist Otto Von Danger is seen orchestrating “Burn Wall Street,” a project that required many months, volunteers and thousands of dollars. The result? A mock block of Wall Street, complete with five buildings, 72 feet at the highest point, that went up in flames toward the end of the 2012 event (the transitory structures were named the Bank of Un-America, Chaos Manhattan, Goldman Sucks and Merrily Lynched). In his own words, Von Danger is “not a Kool Aid drinker,” and doesn’t agree with everything Burning Man is about. But it is a cauldron for self-expression, and we watch as he goes to great lengths to deliver his loaded anti-Wall Street message to the Nevada desert.

The third participant featured in Spark is Jon la Grace, the Burner behind the theme camp PlayaSkool. Emblematic of a growing number of “plug and play” camps and the criticisms they receive, Brown and his crew capture dialogues between Grace and BMORG as they debate the role and place for these large camps, in which people pay in exchange for many of the things Burners expect to do for themselves—like bringing food, water, shade, and so on with them to the playa.

Questions that arise include whether these pampered Burners really “get it.” For example, if they are honoring Burning Man’s 10 Principles (namely “Radical Self Reliance”), whether these camps will become more common as the event continues to grow, and how best to assimilate them into the community. Grace makes the argument that camps like PlayaSkool bring influential people, who may be too busy to plan the journey themselves, to Black Rock City, and they in turn help spread Burning Man ethos to their respective corners of the globe.  

“The hypothesis [of the film] was that acting on dreams would be followed by serious challenges, questions and doubts, and that working through those issues would be transformational,” says Brown, whose own story parallels those he paints on the screen.

“A lot of people go to Burning Man and come back inspired to do something ambitious, creative and crazy that they have never done before,” he says. “For me, it was making my first film.”

He and his Spark comrades battled challenges associated with filming in an inhospitable desert environment (dust chief among them) and grappled with how to harness the intricate pluralities of Burning Man into a tangible story.

While the participants overcome unlikely odds to bring their creations to the desert, we also get a glimpse inside the larger vision, which, until now, remained largely behind closed doors, that makes the entire event possible.

“It’s easy for people to take for granted the fact that others have invested their entire lives into this event that has served as a platform for so much creative inspiration,” says Brown. “Things like Burning Man don't happen by accident.”

The film makes use of a trove of archival footage to shed light on Burning Man’s origin and evolution, starting with the first, seemingly innocuous bonfire on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986. The history lesson rightly includes a look at the seminal year of 1996, when the blossoming event, by then taking place in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, still maintained its free-for-all structure (or lack thereof). Cars sped, guns were fired, and organization was loose. When a record 10,000 people showed up, mayhem—and some tragedies—ensued.

It was a fork in the road for Burning Man, which chose a future of careful management that could allow the event to continue to grow, and the hope was, touch more lives.

This prompted one of the founders, John Law, to put Burning Man behind him. “I didn’t want to be a cop, and I didn’t want to be a bureaucrat,” he says in the film, “and it was clear that’s what the event needed to get bigger.”

Now, for better or for worse, “it’s anything but a controlled event,” he adds.

That first existential crisis, spurred by events in 1996, set Burning Man on the path (one paved with infrastructure, rules and year-round planning) that led to the 2012 debacle.

But when the dust settled on last year’s ticket storm, everything worked out just fine: most people who wanted to go did, and as Burning Man founder Larry Harvey tells us in Spark, the “kerfuffle” actually made the community stronger.

By documenting this episode, the film demonstrates the level to which Burning Man becomes a philosophical and analytical discussion of values, culture, community, commerce, control, and more. 

BMORG has reported that upward of 35 percent of participants were first-timers in 2012, up from the usual 20 to 25 percent. This year (after a much smoother lead-up) around 58,000 people are expected to trek to Black Rock City.

The Burning Man narrative presented in Spark is just “one story of thousands,” says Brown, but one he hopes will spur important discussions as the community forges the path forward.

“The next chapter of Burning Man is being written right now,” says Brown, “but the film hints to the possibility that a community based on values of self-expression and creative collaboration can exist anywhere, not just in the Black Rock Desert.”

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Elizabeth Limbach is a journalist based in Santa Cruz, California.