Authorized Documentary on the Festival
Studio: Gone Off Deep 54757-2
Video: 4:3 full frame color
Audio: DD 5.1, DD 2.0
Extras: Over two hours of deleted scenes, Extended interviews with participants, Outtakes from the documentary, Bonus 16-minute short film: “Preacher with an Unknown God”
Length: Doc. = 105 minutes; total time = 335 minutes
This quite amazing film tells the real story of the Burning Man festival and the philosophy and social revolution which makes it happen every year in the Black Rock desert of western Nevada. The beginnings took place on a beach in San Francisco in l998 with the night burning of a wooden man figure. It has now grown to a one-week event involving around 30,000 people of all ages, as well as 27 regional events around the world based on the same idea.
Burning Man is a festival created by its own participants. Those who design and build some sort of art piece, event or a place where some sort of performance takes place do it gratis – often working for many months on the projects – just because they want to create something unique – “doing a task that takes them out of themselves,” as one of the artists put it. Some of the art works are on wheels – fantastic vehicles shaped like fish or dinosaurs. One building is a huge structure made out of cardboard and paper by a San Francisco architect and designed to give an experience when look up at its center dome from inside which is similar to that in great cathedrals in Europe. The diversity of the entire event is mind-boggling.
Burning Man is not for everybody. One has to brave living conditions that often approach survival techniques. There are frequent dust storms that obliterate vision. It’s often unbearably hot out there too, and that brings about occasional modes of dress and undress which may not be considered appropriate in any other city. (Burning Man becomes the fifth largest Nevada city for a week each year.) The desert is completely flat, dry, and with no vegetation whatever. Streets are laid out, electricity brought in – in fact everything is brought in. When the festival is over every last thing is taken away, down to the smallest trash – picked up a cadre of cleanup workers who scour the desert floor.
Another way things are removed is by burning them down. There seems to be a fascination with fire at the heart of Burning Man. The giant wooden statue is of course burned at the spectacular conclusion of the week, its neon-lined hulk falling over to the accompaniment of a big cheer from all the watching participants. There are dozens of fire dancers, and many of the odd art cars driving around spew flames. The paper cathedral brought in pieces and assembled by the SF architect is also burned at the end of the festival. The feeling behind Burning Man seems to be a throwback to the hippie consciousness of the 60s – a truly alternate world where participants freely share their art and themselves.
The cinematography is often artistic in its own right. Especially during the dust storms, some of the images seem to be right out of a dream. Extra interviews and outtakes fill in one’s impression of the event with more reactions from artists and festival attendees. The 16-minute film by the documentary’s director, Rob Van Alkemade, is about tongue-in-cheek evangelist-impersonator Reverend Billy and The Church of Stop Shopping (and he fits right in at Burning Man). This short won an award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
– John Sunier