FDL Movie Night: Spark: A Burning Man Story
That’s how participants in Burning Man greet each other on arrival on the “playa,” their dusty home for the week long interactive, volunteer-driven event. Theoretically, every person participates in some way — bringing their spirit, their art, their music, food, costumes, and more to Black Rock City — the temporary metropolis that forms annually in a remote Nevada desert. For that week, attendees try to experience their most immediate, authentic selves and interact with each other just as authentically in a wonderland of visual and auditory stimulation that can seem hallucinatory even to the sober, when it’s not (or sometimes especially when it is) overrun with huge dust storms. At the end of the week, the titular effigy burns as tens of thousands watch — the event has grown to over 60,000 people in recent years.
Spark: A Burning Man Story is the latest documentary to try to capture the uncatchable — the experience of transformation that so many Burners experience at their first, or their fifteenth event. By its very nature — because so much of Burning Man is about not just what you do but how it feels and what it means to you in that very moment, because the event itself has made immediacy one of its key 10 principles — no book or film can ever capture the full experience of Burning Man.
In Spark, director/producers Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter get around this impossibility by following key participants through their Burning Man 2012 experience and letting us see the event through their eyes and dozens of others — how it challenges and changes and rewards them at the end of a long hard road. We follow artists launching major installation art projects like Burn Wall Street and Heartfulness, and also gain unprecedented access to the Burning Man Organization, the core planners who keep the event afloat.
2012 was a difficult year for Burning Man, with growth outstripping the amount of available tickets and leaving many people dissatisfied with the lottery system of ticket distribution. This system threatened to destroy the event’s key infrastructure by preventing long time theme camp creators from attending. The year also saw the launch of the Burning Man Project, a still largely undefined nonprofit which the Burning Man organization says will transition into leading the event. Spark shows the tension and difficulty of making an event like Burning Man run, but also the joy on the faces of the organizers as they watch the Man burn.
Any large scale artistic undertaking is challenge, from staffing to fundraising to the final moments of presentation. All those challenges are increased when you have to make your art in the middle of a volatile desert which can change from white-out dust to pouring rain in an instant. Whether they are welding a giant heart or running a “school” where TEDx Burning Man is presented, Spark follows just how much effort goes into makes something happen at Burning Man — and hopefully gives viewers a glimpse of why it’s worth it for so many in the end.
Spark is filled with gorgeous high definition video of the desert, of Burning Man at its most beautiful and outrageous, and of artists hard at work in their studios. Lovingly shot dust storms and mutant vehicles fill the film, along with wonderful aerial footage of the temporary city coming together and coming aflame. The music is also outstanding — rather than just the booming “rave” techno most people imagine is the sole focus of the event, it comes much closer to showcasing Black Rock City’s auditory diversity and beauty than any other documentary I’ve seen.
From the first moments when the Department of Public Works creates Burning Man by driving a golden spike into the desert floor, to the final moments of returning the Black Rock Desert to pristine condition this is a stunning tour of a unique event and culture. I’m excited to talk with Jessie Deeter today about the film and the event. Deeter is the co-producer and co-director of Spark: A Burning Man Story and an experienced documentary journalist who has also worked on films like Who Killed the Electric Car? I hope you’ll give her a very warm Firedoglake welcome today!
Photo by Lindsay Eyink released under a Creative Commons license.