Burning Man is a phenomenon that is held in the deserts of Black Rock, Nevada, 100 miles north of Reno. In 1990, 80 people were in attendance; last year’s attendance rose to 36,500. It is a gathering of artists and like-minded individuals who come to express themselves and their creativity at a weeklong Brigadoon that vanishes back into the desert without a trace to ensure that the Bureau of Land Management will allow them to return. The event culminates in the burning of a wooden sculpture of a man that has ranged in height from 40 to 80 feet over the years.
From the outside, the festival sounds like some hippie, freak fest filled with sex and drugs, and while there’s no denying that does take place on some scale, Burning Man is much more than the party. It’s a serious endeavor with the logistics of a city; Black Rock City, as the area is known, becomes the fifth biggest city in Nevada. One of their mottos is “No Spectators” because they want everyone to participate in and add to the experience.
The filmmakers were granted access to many of those involved with the creation of the event as it led up to the 2003 Burning Man. They reveal the enormous effort that goes into creating this temporary artistic community. Some participating artists, such as David Best who creates very large pieces, also added their voices because many start planning their projects the day Burning Man ends and work on it up to the event.
Although contrary to the motto, the DVD allows the viewer to be a spectator, but it can only provide a brief glimpse and understanding into this world. Some of the sights captured look fantastic and the revelers are having a great time, but to truly understand Burning Man, all your senses need to be engulfed by the event. Some scenes are cut to quickly when they needed to linger, allowing them to soak in.
It is hard to believe that an enterprise of such scale has nothing bad happen: no injuries, no overdoses, no failed art pieces. The documentary was authorized, which makes me wonder if the special access was garnered in exchange for only showing the event in a positive light. Not to disparage the event or the filmmakers but the lack of anything negative with this many people over this many days seems highly doubtful and its absence raises suspicions of what the entirety of Burning Man entails.
The event has a profound and spiritual effect on many of the attendees. Art and the creation of it give many people purpose and meaning to their lives. Before Best burns down his own art piece, he walks around the circle, shaking hands and telling people, “it’s not your fault.” Most people think he’s confused, but he does it because he knows there is someone who needs to hear it. The cameras capture one such woman, who had been wracked with guilt because she fought with her son just before he committed suicide. Best’s words brought a comfort she had been unable to attain on her own.
Burning Man is an amazing event, and for those unable to make the trek or withstand the elements, this DVD provides an insightful, although brief, glimpse that will make you hunger for a more active role in the experience.
Special features include 30 minutes of deleted scenes, extended interviews from the participants, and outtakes that aren’t worth watching. There is a 10-minute featurette on a 2004 event in Austin called Burning Flipside, which co-opts the Burning Man premise. Also included is a short film by Rob VanAlkemade, the documentary’s director of photography, called “Preacher with an Unknown God” that won an award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.