Spark Ignites SXSW, to Mixed Reviews

I missed the Burning Man contingent at SXSW, being there with a contingent of my own in relation to different festivals. But they were there in full force, to support the Burning Man movie Spark’s debut.

Jim Harrington of the San Jose Mercury News was not impressed. He’s never been a Burner, and doesn’t want to become one after watching the film.

I’ve never gone to Burning Man, the gigantic free-spirited, clothing-optional gathering of artistic souls and gregarious spirits that takes place each year in the Nevada desert.

1995 mud orgyI’ve never even wanted to go. I guess there’s just something about one of the event’s main principles — “There are no spectators, only participants” — that doesn’t quite mesh with being a professional critic, who is, by very job description, an observer.

Yet, I feel like I now have a better understanding of those who live and breathe for this event. And I guess that’s probably the main goal of “Spark: A Burning Man Story.”

It’s important to note that this is not really a documentary about what it is like to actually attend the freewheeling fandango. It’s not filled to capacity with scenes of nude folks running about the desert, playing games and juggling fiery objects. In fact, amazingly, there is very little nudity in this film.

Instead, it’s a film about what goes into putting on such a mammoth event. The stars of “Spark” are the festival founders, organizers and those who spend months each year preparing the often-impressive art installations that are erected on site.

It is, of course, only side of the saga. That’s probably why the filmmakers carefully had the title read “A Burning Man Story” as opposed to “The Burning Man Story.”

This story is indeed pretty interesting. Yet, certainly not interesting enough to get me out to the desert

Marcia Franklin at the Boise Weekly (that’s Idaho, folks) was much more impressed, but also flagged the disappointment at the lack of nudity:

Spark: A Burning Man Story—part of SXSW’s stellar documentary lineup—succeeds because it applies both a journalist’s and a cinematographer’s eye to the characters and commotion behind the annual Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.

Co-producer-co-director Jessie Deeter, whose background is in journalism (Revenge of the Electric Car, FRONTLINE: Death by Fire), crafts a story that goes beyond a history of Burning Man.

“I didn’t want to make a PSA for Burning Man, because there are plenty of those,” she says. 
Deeter examines the tension between the communal ideals of the event, which began as a small gathering on a San Francisco beach in

photo from BurnerFashion

photo from BurnerFashion

1986, and the current reality, in which organizers have to ensure that a pop-up city of 60,000 doesn’t collapse into mayhem and danger.

That has meant higher ticket prices and new rules, including a ticket lottery—all of which create a backlash against the organizers, which we see as the film progresses. It’s a story replicated in many organizations that become wildly successful.

“It’s a story of growing up, primarily,” says Deeter. “You reach a point where as the founder of your small, cute little company that has this ideal, you have to then look at yourself and say, ‘What are we going to have to do to grow it?’ And you can choose as the remaining founders did to make certain compromises… or you can choose not to.”

We learn more about those founders, who include a dynamic group of women and an intriguing man who left the group because he felt it had betrayed its roots.

Deeter also winds in the tales of three participants for whom Burning Man has been an epiphany, including a disabled Marine who builds and burns a replica of Wall Street buildings, and a woman who is welding a 12-foot heart—perhaps the purest symbol of the original ideals of Burning Man.

Filmed almost entirely using DSLRs, as well as a drone for aerial shots, the film is gorgeous: a virtual carnival of images that reflect the spectacle that is Burning Man. (Some in the audience, however, were disappointed at the lack of nudity.)

Deeter, who’s filmed abroad under tough conditions for other pieces, says she was nevertheless “terrified” of the sand destroying her equipment, and used underwater housing to protect the cameras from the capricious sandstorms.

This film is for those who’ve wondered about Burning Man but never wanted to actually “live” it, as well as for groupies who want a visual reminder of its importance in their lives. Speaking of that, if you’re at Burning Man this year, plans are to show the film on the Playa.

Dan Gentile praised the film’s visual composition and narrative arc in the Austinist:

For those that haven’t been to Burning Man, it’s hard not to think of it as an escape for the type of drug-user who’s really into peace, love, and glitter. Spark: A Burning Man Story smashes this stereotype, spotlighting the intense amount of hard work and dedication that has helped to grow the festival from a small beach side bonfire in 1986 into a 50,000 person spectacle of unbridled creativity in the Nevada desert.

The film is comprised largely of interviews with the founding festival team, nearly all of whom have stayed the course and dedicated their lives to Burning Man’s come-as-you-are philosophy for the past 30 years. They’re a motley crew of idealists, showing their age in appearance but working with an adolescent fervor to expand the festival infrastructure while holding fast to their ten guiding principles. As the scale increases exponentially, these principles are threatened and shake the community to its core.

playaskool loveThe narrative arc follows a cross-section of burners whose meticulous preparations for the festival highlight its growing pains. A former businessman who found his freak flag at the fest curates an all-inclusive plug-and-play sub-camp where self-reliance goes out the window and attendees have more of a responsibility-free hedonistic experience. A young female metalworker who has Kickstartered a massive heart-shaped sculpture fears she may not receive a ticket despite her months of planning. A contractor who’s building a faux Wall Street complete with an eight-story Goldman Sucks building stresses over his construction schedule. The viewer feels their struggle, cheers once the projects are complete, and can’t wait for them to all be burned to the ground.

Visually the film is a treat, with a cache of some of the most vibrant B-roll you can imagine. Wide-eyed, barely clothed women dance through psychedelic light structures, ramshackle Mad Max vehicles shoot flames, and a temporary city of 50,000 cheer as it all goes up in flames. But the real takeaway is that this isn’t just a giant rave, but rather the type of event that people pour their entire lives into, and receive something just as valuable in return.

It’s not a giant rave? What? I obviously didn’t get that memo. That ain’t the kind of takeaway I wants ta be eatin’!

Angela, at Lost In Reviews, gave it a pretty good overall 3 out of 5, and put it on her bucket list:

Only three minutes into the film, and I knew I would have to go to Burning Man sometime in my life. After watching the film, I realized that may not be as easy as imagined.

The documentary  Spark is about how the elusive festival in the desert, Burning Man, came to be and is today. In this moment, what do you really know about Burning Man? Before watching the doc, I knew very little. I knew it took place out in the desert, it was something like five days of hippies dancing in the sun, taking as many drugs as possible and commemorating the entire experience by burning a huge statue of a wooden man on the last night. Come to find out, my predictions were not too far off. Although the festival is a week-long and there is much more involved than hippies getting high in the desert. It’s much deeper than that.

Burningman1Now after learning a little bit more about the fest, I began to wonder why they would even want to film a documentary on Burning Man. What I mean to say is the essence of Burning Man was a free-spirited festival in the desert where everyone brought in what they needed and left nothing behind. There were no corporate sponsors or advertised drinks sitting around. By announcing to the world that you have this secret, little, awesome festival in the desert, won’t everyone want to come? Won’t it become too big? That question, or one very similar was asked to one of the co-founders in the film and he answered with a question: What is too big?

Of course, how free-spirited could this festival have been after all? Sure, there were no bouncers telling people where to go, but without some sort of guidance out there, the scene was surely going to turn into the lizard orgy Hunter S. Thompson feared was all around him. telephone_burning_man_art_carThe entire idea of Burning Man is that they are setting things on fire, at the end of the fest. Well, I’m no scientist, but I would feel confident in stating that fire mixed with people on drugs can not end well. According to the film, the festival in 1996 turned into the wild, wild west, with every man for himself.

Since then, Burning Man has had to step up their security a bit to protect themselves and everyone else that attends the fest. It’s still far from corporate, but not quite as free as in the good ole days. But then, what is anymore? The film spent the last twenty minutes or so just filming the goings on at the fest. No narration was needed, just a little music to set the scene. We get to see huge dance parties, dusty people making out, many things being set on fire, and tons of creative costumes and vehicles riding around showing off their glowing lights and flame-throwing dragon cars. Going to Burning Man is definitely a photographers dream!

I give Spark: A Burning Man Story 3 “” out of 5


Here’s an interview from SXSW with Director Jessie Deeter


One comment on “Spark Ignites SXSW, to Mixed Reviews

  1. Pingback: The Spark of Controversy | Burners.Me Burning Man commentary blog

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