In 2010, I attended Burning Man for the first time after years of turning down invitations and exhortations from friends who are longtime Burners. When I finally went, I realized how wrong my reasons for not going had been. So when I got back, I tried to write out what my experience had been like for Huffington Post, but soon realized that I had seen and felt so much that I could never describe it accurately -- or worse, I might give an impression of it that incorrectly made people feel like they understood what Burning Man is like. So I ended up writing about something I knew I could describe -- my mental state going into Burning Man and my internal struggle to let go of it and give in to the experience. You can read what I wrote here.
Spark: A Burning Man Story attempts to do what I couldn't -- give a comprehensive account of Burning Man by examining its history, the people who created it and are running it today, and those who sacrifice their time, effort, money, and more to create the art pieces and theme camps that make Burning Man what it is. But with something as large, unique, and ineffable as Burning Man, is trying to encapsulate it in a 90-minute documentary even possible? Watch my ReThink Review of Spark: A Burning Man Story below (transcript following).
Burning Man, the annual art and creativity festival that transforms Nevada's Black Rock Desert into a giant social experiment and alternative community 60,000 people strong, has been lumped in with Grateful Dead and Phish concerts as a bit of a punchline over the years. But that's only if you've never been. I say that because I went to Burning Man in 2010, with all my cynicism in tow, and it really was an unexpectedly life-changing, enormously positive experience that I firmly believe can't be understood or appreciated unless you've gone yourself. Though it's not for lack of trying, since there have been several documentaries attempting to encapsulate the Burning Man experience, the latest of which is Spark: A Burning Man Story, which follows the preparations of Burning Man's organizers, as well as three people bringing large-scale projects to the Playa.
One of those is a starving artist attempting to create and bring a large, welded, heart-shaped sculpture to the Playa as her contribution to Burning Man. Another is a former Marine with plans to build an effigy of Wall Street facades to burn to the ground as a political statement. The last is the founder of a theme camp called Play)A(Skool who's wondering how much longer he's willing to put himself through the logistical nightmare and responsibility of organizing and operating his camp.
Spark mostly follows the build-up to Burning Man 2012, a particularly interesting time to follow Burning Man's organizers since that year was beset with a ticketing fiasco that kept thousands of long-time Burners from established camps from attending, threatening the existence of the camps themselves. The organizers' story, where Spark's directors had access to Burning Man's six founders, is by far the most interesting story and definitely deserves its own film. Their story takes you through Burning Man's 27-year history, from a group of artists and former hippies gathering on a San Francisco beach to the massive international spectacle it is today -- which means that you essentially have a group of former hippies and young idealists attempting to run a corporation while ensuring the safety and organization of an ever-growing, ever-changing event known for freedom and unruliness.
Unfortunately, the story of the organizers and founders has to share the film with three other stories that aren't nearly as interesting, since they're essentially beat-the-clock stories about overcoming obstacles to get projects done before a deadline. Their stories could relate to any field or business, which doesn't do justice to what a unique thing Burning Man is and why it inspires people to change their lives so radically to prepare for the next Burn and attempt to live by Burning Man's Ten Principles year round.
This brings up what I feel is the impossibility of making a comprehensive Burning Man movie. Everyone who goes to Burning Man has a unique, personal experience based on what they bring to it and what happens while they're there, so I bristle at the idea of anyone saying that there's a representative Burning Man experience, or a typical reason why people go and keep coming back. With 60,000 in attendance and seven square miles of ever-changing, wild creativity to explore, it's impossible to see all of Burning Man in a week, or ever, let alone a 90-minute documentary. So for me, any documentary that attempts to encapsulate Burning Man is doomed to fail.
Therefore, it seems like a good Burning Man doc would be one that uncovers a hidden side of Burning Man for people who already understand what Burning Man is about, like the parts of Spark that show the history and planning behind Burning Man that are invisible to those who attend -- which would limit the film's appeal. Yet a documentary attempting to explain Burning Man to those who've never been -- which is most people -- strikes me as an impossible task. Spark lands in the middle, meaning much of it will be a retread for those who've gone, while providing an incomplete picture for those who haven't. Spark clearly has its heart in the right place, but I hate to say it -- if you really want to understand Burning Man, take a risk, spend the money, and go. You can thank me when you get back.