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Burning Man documentary depicts bright ideals but no spark of change

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Associate Editor, Weekender

SEPTEMBER 04, 2013

When it comes to Burning Man, the week-long orgy of radical self-emancipation in the middle of the Nevada desert, there has been a lot of wasted ink.

In 2012, the festival’s organizers developed a lottery system to accommodate the tens of thousands of people looking to get tickets to Burning Man, and front-page stories in the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times highlighted the inequitable ticket distribution controversy that ensued. And now, in the week after this year’s Burning Man, the expected photo essays and long-form articles have already appeared on the websites of The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times and many more.

In sum, Burning Man has “made it,” or whatever that means.

And “Spark: A Burning Man Story” directors Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter capture all of this quite well. They document the origins, rise and maturation of the Burning Man festival, its organizers and its participants. Going all the way back to a mid-1980s summer solstice bonfire on a San Francisco beach, Brown and Deeter use their access to Burning Man’s central leadership and founders as a way of putting a human face on the event.

While all this is interesting background that clarifies a lot about an experience that is supposedly ineffable, the movie is at its best when it follows the individuals who set up “creative camps”: the campsites that build massive, highly sophisticated structures, ranging from cars decked out like dragons to a mock downtown Wall Street set up to be burned in effigy at the end of the week.

While the movie smoothly tracks the drama of the ticket fiasco and how the first Burning Man festivals were organized in San Francisco (as well as how the festival “made it”), the film’s inability to soberly question some of the event’s dogmas and limitations make it hard to take “Spark” seriously. And as the event has become more high-profile in recent years and bore witness to wealthy venture-capital and Silicon Valley types making up more and more of its numbers, it’s curious as to why the movie barely addresses the phenomenon.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, directors Brown and Deeter spoke frankly about the parallels between Burning Man and Silicon Valley.
“I think (Burning Man) is more like the early stage start-up culture of Silicon Valley,” Brown said. Extending the comparison, he suggested Burning Man was a similar “idealistic, small group trying to follow this dream of creating a new society.”

Deeter elaborated further, asserting that “there’s also a literal cross-pollination between some of the startups and Burning Man” and that a number of Silicon Valley’s key technologists took direct inspiration from participating in Burning Man. She gave the example of Second Life creator Phil Rosedale’s experience at Burning Man influencing his work on the online virtual-reality platform he created.

Silicon Valley’s racial discrimination problem has been well-documented online by outlets like Gawker and Mother Jones. When Burning Man was at its deepest moment of crisis, with tickets not making it to the necessary creative types, people saw an all-white meeting of the Burning Man minds working to fix the problem. For a group of people so deeply committed to a “better” society, they have a pretty limited vision of whom it encompasses.

What makes Burning Man unattractive to many is the same thing that makes Google or Facebook’s grandiose visions of the future unappealing. They aren’t rooted in some effort to “reform” society to be more humane and fair; they are based on a futurism in which the problems of today are meant to be escaped and not solved. And once a year, for a certain group of mostly white people, the Black Rock Desert gets to play home to these fantasies.

And frankly, I hope they stay there.

Contact Noah Kulwin at  or on Twitter

LAST UPDATED

SEPTEMBER 04, 2013


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