Spark: A Burning Man Story
Runs Fri., Sept. 6-Sun., Sept. 8 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Not rated. 90 minutes.
Believers in the stereotype of Burning Man as merely an E-fueled hippie rave in the northwest Nevada desert will find lots of footage here to confirm it, but that’s not the focus of Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter’s doc, which concentrates as much on the crisis that marred the 2012 gathering—for some, permanently—as on the event itself. Organizers saw it coming: BM’s increasing popularity ensured that eventually demand would outstrip capacity; and, confronted with 80,000 ticket requests and a Bureau of Land Management–mandated attendance cap of 60,000, a lottery system for ticket allotments seemed the only answer. (In 2003, the most recent year I went, attendance was 30,000.)
It was a significant philosophical shakeup: This utopian experiment in radical inclusiveness now had to keep some people out. Longtime Burners, faced with not even being allowed to buy a ticket, were outraged, and the large-scale art installations that for many are the festival’s raison d’etre were threatened: Why start planning and building if you don’t know whether you can go? (The most interesting of the potential attendees profiled here, San Francisco’s Katy Boynton, goes ahead anyway with her work: a 14-foot-high heart made from elaborately bent metal pipes, sort of a wire sculpture writ large.)
Another issue touched on in Spark: the controversial rise of “plug and play” or “turnkey” camps, fully catered experiences in which, basically, you pay to have other people set up everything for you. One not touched on (albeit debated extensively elsewhere): BM’s extreme racial homogeneity, the grandest example of Stuff White People Like. (I don’t recall seeing a single African-American face anywhere in this 90-minute film.) But if all this is starting to sound like an old episode of Firing Line, rest assured that scenes of the 2012 event are plentiful and dazzling, some of the most luscious BM images I’ve ever seen. If, like me, you’ve been away for a while—and still feel an I-should-be-there pang the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend, when the Man burns—Spark will have you aching to return.