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