Film Review – Spark: A Burning Man Story
From the outside, the annual Burning Man gathering in Nevada looks like a crazy gathering of sun-burnt, formerly Grateful Dead following, Phish listening, free-love having, acid-dropping, half-naked hippies. It can seem like a strange, otherworldly experience that might seem pointless. So to answer the question “What the hell is that unwashed mass of humanity doing out in the desert for a week every year?”, along comes the new documentary Spark: A Burning Man Story.
For the completely uninitiated, Burning Man is an annual gathering in the desert where people of all walks of life from around the world create a temporary city for one week. This community is devoted mainly to art of all kinds. There are various campsites that are set up where massive artistic structures are created of all shapes and sizes. The footage shows a metal octopus with flames shooting out of each tentacle, a car in the shape of a metallic snail, a nine-story tower that is labelled “MalMart,” a guy with flowing wings roller skating in circles, fireworks, a western corral…if it can be engineered and imagined, it will show up at Burning Man. The week culminates in the ritual torching of the Burning Man, a tall, 3000-pound wood effigy of a faceless figure with a triangular head. It strives to be art as a pure form of expression. Everyone who attends is a participant. There is no money that exchanges hands. Everything is conducted on a gifting system. There are ten guidelines to live by that include radical self-reliance and leaving the place better than you found it. The festival has become so popular over the past couple of decades that the attendance during the 2012 gathering profiled in the film numbered at 55,000 people. It is impressive.
There are two things that Spark does extremely well. Firstly, a lot of the footage of the art itself is spectacular. This is a really good-looking documentary. Arial shots give the whole gathering a nice sense of scale. The soundtrack punctuates the imagery nicely. Various exhibits, like the Merry-Go-Round of Flame, look gorgeous against the night sky. Also, the film helps to define what Burning Man is to the outside world as best it can. We get to see the planning that goes in year-round. We see the massive undertaking of some of these projects, through footage of one group that’s constructing a massive slant-roofed building overseen by a taciturn Army vet. We follow one woman who can’t pay her rent, but is constructing a 12-foot-tall metallic heart with hammocks inside. We meet the founding group of the gathering and hear what it all means to them. This film documents what Burning Man is all about.
Things aren’t always bright and rosy for this purely artistic experience. In 1996, they hit 10,000 attendees and realized they couldn’t control the ensuing chaos. Footage of a flaming tower with someone in a devil outfit throwing gasoline on the flames while someone else zip lines off of the tall structure shows the inherent danger when you get too many people with too many drugs in too unregulated a space. Some of this chaos evokes the disastrous results shown in the famous Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter. Both share figurehead performers that had peace and love on their minds but had a crowd that was too out of control to keep safe. The Stones had a more tragic result, but it seems like the leaders of Burning Man might have been headed that same route if they hadn’t done something. So dealing with bureaucracy and a ticketing system became necessary. The debate over how limits are set amongst groups of purely artistic types results in some of the most unintentionally hilarious passive aggressive scenes in quite some time. No one wants to be “the establishment,” but safety needs dictate that they solve the problems.
There are a couple of oversights in the film. How all of this gets paid for is lightly touched on. There is a reluctant mention that rich people often have to finance many of these projects. Delving into those details would have been enlightening. Resolving commerce versus all of these pie in the sky artistic ideals would be interesting. But here it is largely ignored. Also, this crowd is so snow white it’s blinding. It’s not that minorities wouldn’t be embraced if they were there. These people surely embrace all races with relish. But the fact is, at least according to the footage in Spark, crazy Caucasians are the only ones that embrace this flighty lifestyle. There’s definitely something interesting there, but it’s not addressed at all.
The Burning Man ethos isn’t for everybody. It can be viewed as adults looking for an excuse to do a lot of drugs in the middle of nowhere in the name of living a more authentic existence. Personally, I wouldn’t covet the idea of being in 110-degree heat for a week with thousands of other people and no shower. But this film does make a strong case for the celebration of art. Pursuing dreams for no other reason than expression has to have a place in the world, too. Burning Man is providing that place.