SXSW: Burning Man Doc is Carnival of Images


Spark: A Burning Man Story heated up the SXSW Film Festival.
  • Spark: A Burning Man Story heated up the SXSW Film Festival.

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 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.