‘Spark: A Burning Man Story’: The Festival from a Distance

“I drew a line on the ground. And I said, ‘On the other side of this line, everything will be different.’ And everything has been different.”

— Larry Harvey, Burning Man Cofounder

Bicycles with day-glow sticks weave playfully across a vast expanse of off-white sand. So do cars painted to look like snails, dolphins, and dragons. A massive wooden temple rises as if out of nowhere. Shot at night, such scenes pop up frequently in Spark: A Burning Man Story. They suggest the documentary’s focus on what’s appealing about the annual art event.

At first, Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter’s film weaves this focus into an examination of how the festival was founded. The general dynamics of the opening image of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, in particular the playa where Burning Man is held every year at the end of August, are repeated in many of the next images, which take on a hazy, diffused look, thanks to the dust storms that rip through the playa on a nearly daily basis. A quick image of the Burning Man temple in the midst of one of these storms serves as a metaphor for the narrative to follow, a narrative that too often loses its shape.

This inconsistency is partly the result of Spark‘s use of two very different sets of footage. About half was shot in or around the San Francisco offices of Black Rock City LLC, the corporate arm of Burning Man, a series of interviews and bits of oral history provided by the cofounders and current directors of Burning Man. These are supplemented by interviews with artists and camp directors, equally immersed in the process of planning for the festival.

The other half of the footage was shot during Burning Man 2012. These playa images are consistently beautiful, but not so informative. And so we’re asked to fit the landscape shots into what the cofounders say during their interviews, to associate them with the communal experience of Burning Man and the principle of giving they insist inspires the event each year.

Given the Burning Man community’s longstanding emphasis on generosity and contribution to the group effort, we might wonder why so many shots of festival participants at Burning Man show no interaction by the filmmakers with their subjects. We observe a set of parents exploring the playa with their young daughter, but we never find out what brought the family to the festival. Despite dozens of nighttime shots of attendees cruising across in their vehicles, we don’t meet any people. Rather, we watch voiceless subjects from a distance.

The lack of voices extends to the stories about the festival’s history. The only serious dissenter featured is John Law, a Burning Man cofounder who left the organization more than 15 years ago. Though he expresses his disappointment in the current state of the event, he’s a minimal presence in the film. Near the end, he appears fixing a neon sign on a UC Berkeley clock tower, a shot emphasizing his isolation. The contrast between one man alone on a tower and tens of thousands of cheering people surrounding the towering Burning Man in the desert could not be clearer. This judgment by the film suggests it’s so much Black Rock City LLC propaganda.

One of the questions Law raises has to do with how Burners gain access. Facing a crisis of overcrowding at the event, the board implemented a lottery system that left some veteran attendees without tickets. Here, those board members talk about their decision, but we don’t hear from any attendees. Brown tells the San Francisco Bay Guardian that working on the film during the ticketing crisis required some negotiating with the board: “They were in the process of going into a nonprofit,” he says, “And they wanted to get their message out into the world.” That desire to get messages out extends to the board’s power to control all media at the event, as indicated by a notoriously strict policy on “taking pictures.”

Such control explains why Spark features no interactions with participants or personal stories about their experiences. From a distance, it does look like participants are enjoying themselves and are fully immersed in the event. Spark is the story told by the Black Rock City board members, without question.

RATING 5 / 10