[29 August 2006]
One scene in the documentary Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock manages to encapsulate the spirit of its subject. Molly Best, the daughter of one of Burning Man’s most important contributors, sits on the desert ground and lovingly describes her father. As she speaks, she uses her finger to draw concentric circles in the sand beside her. When she finishes her tribute, she pauses and then brushes her palm over the sand, erasing her artistic effort more quickly than she created it.
The activities of those who attend the Burning Man festival mirror Berry’s drawing and erasing of circles in the sand. Each year, people from all over the US converge on the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, and they assemble a makeshift city. As of 2003, the year in which Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock was filmed, 35,000 people participated in this event, and the city they built was the fifth largest in the state of Nevada.
After living together for a week, the participants burn a giant model of a man, disassemble their city, and go home without leaving a trace of their brief inhabitance in the desert. This appropriately titled Burning Man event grows bigger every year, and, as it does, it attracts an increasing amount of attention from people who want to figure out exactly what happens at the festival. Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock examines not only this mystery but also the complex infrastructure that supports the yearly event.
Many people mistakenly assume that Burning Man is merely a gathering of “freaks and hippies” which is dominated by sex, drugs, and anarchy. The documentary acknowledges this stereotype, but it goes to great lengths to dispel it. Producers Michael S. Wilson and William Haskins and director Damon Brown have created a film that attempts to depict Burning Man not as a reckless exercise in freedom, but as a careful execution of planning.
Over the course of 18 months, the filmmakers documented the lives of many people involved in Burning Man, including participants from New York and California and members of the event’s almost 3,000-person infrastructure, and these people couldn’t be more diverse. One of them, Larry Harvey, is the ideological misfit who failed at every job he tried until he found success and fulfillment as the founder of Burning Man. Another is David Best, a Californian artist who erects an enormous, intricate temple at Burning Man each year and then incinerates it at the conclusion of the festival.
The filmmakers’ broad approach is effective but not perfect. It shows the range of talent and the extent of preparation that Burning Man requires, but it has a few drawbacks. First, the film contains so much information and so many different stories that it bogs down in the middle. By the time the week of Burning Man arrives, the festival seems almost incidental. Another problem is that although many interesting people appear throughout the film, audience members never really learn what really makes the characters tick. They can see glimpses of emotional vulnerability in moments such as the one where Harvey speaks about finding fulfillment and success in Burning Man, but real insight into the participants’ hearts remains scarce. The filmmakers touch on a number of deep topics, including at one point the fear of death, but they never really pursue these threads fully. Still, the documentary is more a story of an event than a person, and, in that respect, it is very thorough.
One of the most interesting parts of watching the new Burning Man documentary is seeing how the festival translates to film. Throughout the movie, the filmmakers have taken great effort to show that the festival is about participation. As the participants are setting up their desert city, for instance, they speak condescendingly of spectators who want to see Burning Man but don’t want to bring artwork or stay the entire week. People must experience Burning Man to fully appreciate it, and for this reason, no documentary can fully capture its appeal.
Viewers can see many unusual artistic sights in Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock, and they can see the participants struggling against harsh elements of nature, such as rain, heat, and sand. To understand Burning Man, however, is to feel nature, to wander through a desert packed with art, and to be a part of a community of free-spirited, creative people. Film cannot provide this experience, so no documentary, even one as thoroughly researched as Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock can truly capture the essence of the event.
Although it is not perfect, the latest Burning Man DVD is worth watching. It presents a view of Burning Man that most people, including many participants, will never see. At the very least, it has plenty of good footage of one of the most unusual artistic communities in the world.
The DVD is loaded with high-quality extras, including extended interviews, deleted scenes, and the 16-minute short film, Preacher with an Unknown God, which follows the wild traveling adventures of Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping. These features enhance the value of a documentary which, although not as amazing as its subject matter, is a worthwhile experience in its own right.