VOD film review: Spark: A Burning Man Story
Matthew Turner | On 22, Dec 2020
Directors: Steve Brown, Jessie Deeter
Cast: Larry Harvey, Katy Boynton, Jon La Grace, Otto von Danger, Michael Mikel, John Law
Watch Spark: A Burning Man Story online in the UK: Amazon Prime
Co-directed by Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter, this 2013 documentary offers a behind-the-scenes look at Burning Man, the annual, week-long festival that takes place in the Nevada Desert. However, while the film captures the creativity and the jaw-dropping spectacle of the festival, it gradually becomes clear that its primary function is promotional, meaning that any potentially interesting story angles quickly get sidelined.
The festival began life in 1986 as a showcase for artistic expression, attended by a group of about 20 people, with founder Larry Harvey saying: “Hey, let’s burn a man on the beach”. As it grew in size, Harvey and his co-founders (most of whom are present as interviewees) attempted to adhere to the festival’s core values, including a gifting economy, decommodification and communal effort, meaning that if you attend, you’re expected to contribute in some way, not just be a spectator.
However, over the years, the festival has grown to a frankly unmanageable size – footage from 1996, in particular, makes it look like a health and safety nightmare – necessitating the sort of organisation, corporate structure and profit-making that seems directly at odds with the festival’s counter-cultural ethos and background. That’s a fascinating contradiction, but one that goes largely unexplored by the filmmakers, other than including brief to-camera interviews with co-founder John Law, who left the organisation because he could see the writing on the wall and didn’t like where things were going.
Midway through there’s an attempt to introduce some drama in the form of the 2012 ticketing fiasco, which left many regular Burning Man devotees unable to attend, including artists and designers whose contributions made the festival what it is in the first place. This is the closest the film ever gets to showing you something going wrong, with the 50-plus staff members getting upset over internet abuse from angry would-be attendees. The situation is eventually resolved off-screen, then dropped and barely mentioned again, which is frustrating on a narrative level, while also hammering home the suspicion that although the film purports to be behind-the-scenes, you’re really only seeing what the management wants you to see.
Outside of the organisers, the film follows three artists as they prepare for the festival: welder Katy Boynton (who’s contrubuting an impressive statue), former Wall Streeter Jon La Grace (who organises an annual Mardi-Gras-like theme camp) and ex-Marine Otto von Danger, who builds an extraordinary life-size model of Wall Street, just so he can symbolically burn it all down. Once again, however, although the artists are interesting as characters, they don’t repay the film’s interest in them and you start to wish the film had taken a broader approach to interviewees.
The final third of the film is devoted to the festival itself and it’s here that the documentary comes into its own, with some impressive camerawork (including aerial photography) that captures the scale, the spectacle (Otto’s project really delivers) and the extraordinary creativity of Burning Man. The highlight is the frankly astonishing array of customised vehicles, which feels like a steampunk fantasy or the Wacky Races cartoon come to life.
However, even in the festival scenes there’s a strong sense of behind-the-scenes censorship, not least because as well as creative expression, the festival is also known for its copious amounts of alcohol, drugs and nudity, all of which are conspicuous by their near total absence.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is now available on Gaia, as part of a £8.99 monthly subscription.