Spark: A Burning Man Story (Steve Brown & Jessie Deeter, 2013)

This is literally a documentary: it documents some things. These things include archival footage of the Burning Man festival in Nevada, the mounting difficulties faced by the organisers as the festival became increasingly popular, and the efforts made by festivalgoers to transport large, impressive, artistic and architectural constructions to the Nevada desert. But unlike most documentaries, Spark: A Burning Man Story makes no effort to interrogate its subject matter. It’s merely a heavily editorialised, 90-minute advertisement for a festival.

... Radical.
… Radical.

To be fair, it’s a pretty good advertisement. Burning Man seems, on many counts, pretty astounding. Most good-hearted viewers will leave the film with a positive impression of a free, democratic event that committedly champions creativity, individuality and authenticity. But we’re left wondering how honest this portrayal is. The film’s only talking heads are the festival’s organisers and hardcore Burning Man fans. We’re told plenty about the event’s “gift economy” (everyone brings their own resources, plus a surplus to share around), and the organisers insist that all refuse is taken away by the conscientious festivalgoers, such that the landscape is identical at the festival’s end to how it looked originally. But although we see one disgruntled, radically left-wing carpenter briefly complaining about freeloaders, we’re left blissfully ignorant about how successful Burning Man’s utopian vision really is.

Even the tone appears smug and sanctimonious rather than simply enthusiastic. We sit in on AGMs and contingency meetings, in which worried consultants discuss how much is at stake and earnestly hyperbolise the situation. Its institutionalised left-wing credentials are fairly self-evident; we don’t need to be reminded, as we are by a snippet of filmed conversation that is so unsubtle it almost seems staged, that there is no “VIP lounge”. This isn’t just Woodstock or Monterey, y’know – this is Burning Man.

Perhaps this is being a little harsh on the film. There’s nothing wrong with the organisers taking their jobs seriously, and it’s probably safe to assume the festival is genuinely wonderful; it’s undeniably popular, with thousands being personally and emotionally invested in it. It means a hell of a lot to a hell of a lot of people, with one of the organisers saying quietly, “My life would not have meaning… I would be forced out of myself [if not for the festival]. This is the best thing that ever happened to me.” The festival certainly seems to have changed lives. Some of the clips we do see showcase some brilliant constructions, and the haphazard position of everything across the territory makes the festival resemble, at points, a Dalí desert scene. There are cars fashioned into mechanical snails, huge mobile murals depicting pink unicorns fucking, and even an entire replica of Wall Street (built to be burned down, of course, by the aforementioned rad carpenter).

Props to Otto von Danger, whose Burn Wall Street installation was pretty impressive.
Props to Otto von Danger, whose Burn Wall Street installation was pretty impressive.

But 90 minutes is a long time to fill, and after a while, the film’s tone turns from sweet and earnest to bludgeoning and practically propagandistic. The film would be a lot more likeable if its directors weren’t quite so insistent on pressing home how staggeringly important and awesomely wondrous the festival is. At points, it seems almost like a reality TV show; the extra-diegetic music is lugubrious or pizzicato in all the appropriate places.

Unlike other festival movies, such as Woodstock or Glastonbury, we’re not left with relatively unbiased, subtly edited footage. The festival may well be innovative, intriguing and inspirational, but Spark: A Burning Man Story is a propaganda piece.

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