There are no spectators at Burning Man, only participants. But that core principle doesn’t apply to “Spark: A Burning Man Story,” a documentary that purports to offer an inside look at the annual DIY festival of self-expression and artistic freedom that materializes every Labor Day weekend in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Armchair voyeurs can soak it all in when the film launches Aug. 16 in limited theatrical play and Aug. 17 on VOD, though they may be disappointed with carefully curated imagery more suggestive of a promotional video than of a fully immersive experience.
Tyro feature helmers Steve Brown (a tech-world entrepreneur) and Jessie Deeter (director of the “Frontline” documentary “Death by Fire”) bring a clear reverence to their Burning Man chronicle, establishing the event as an ephemeral utopia built on values of “decommodification,” a “gifting economy” and “communal effort.” That celebratory approach yields striking visuals but minimal insight, though one suspects the Burning Man founders’ reputation for maintaining strict approval over anything filmed onsite is at least partially responsible for the on-message presentation, fleeting nudity and near-complete avoidance of drug use.
“Spark” begins with a rather perfunctory history lesson explaining Burning Man’s humble origins as an impromptu summer-solstice celebration in 1986 at San Francisco’s Baker Beach, with a total of 20 attendees. Within a decade, Burning Man moved to the desert and began attracting thousands with its free-spirited counterculture ethos. But booming attendance necessitated the introduction of basic rules and regulations for safety and crowd-control purposes, suddenly putting the festival at odds with its founding “anything goes” principles, while also raking in a tidy profit for the increasingly removed governors.
Despite brief bursts of critical commentary from disgruntled co-founder John Law (who didn’t appreciate the changes), “Spark” largely skirts these issues and instead acknowledges the ongoing “How big is too big for Burning Man?” debate by focusing on the “ticket crisis” of 2012. Cameras capture Burning Man staffers in a panic and lamenting nasty Internet commenters (join the club) when an unexpected rush on online sales leaves scores of veteran burners without tickets. It’s a legitimate concern because many of the die-hards are responsible for the “theme camps” and art projects that make up the largely attendee-provided infrastructure. And yet, just when things begin to get dramatic, the simple solution (reserve blocks of tickets for theme camps) is glossed over as another inevitable victory in Burning Man’s march toward world domination.
Not striking much narrative gold within the Burning Man organization, Brown and Deeter expand their survey to include three artists working on projects for the 2012 gathering. Welder Katy Boynton aims to debut a 12-foot tall sculpture that’s literally an open heart for burners to lounge inside. Gulf War Marine veteran Otto von Danger constructs a faux city block of banks for “Burn Wall Street,” which he’ll symbolically set ablaze in the desert. And flamboyant former Wall Streeter Jon La Grace prepares his annual “Play)A(Skool” theme camp, essentially a mini-rave. While Boynton is sweetly earnest and La Grace and especially von Danger are colorful characters, their straightforward stories aren’t particularly compelling.
Mercifully, “Spark” eventually gets to Burning Man itself for the third act, and the filmmakers’ passion finds a worthy outlet. Fast-paced montages set to a variety of electronic music deliver the expected sensory overload and successfully convey a sense of the event’s scope, aided immeasurably by a significant amount of aerial photography.
Yet more time spent on the ground, and with the attendees, would have been ideal, especially since this may be as close as many viewers get to joining in. Instead, “Spark” remains a lovingly made and shot tease, designed to ensure that what really happens at Burning Man stays at Burning Man.