Even back in 2012, the annual Burning Man gathering (organizers prefer not to call it a “festival”) was experiencing serious growing pains, and the event has only gotten bigger and more unwieldy since then. It’s also gotten much more famous and influential, and the 2013 documentary Spark: A Burning Man Story provides an interesting snapshot of the event at a crossroads, navigating its transition from a get-together for like-minded alternative artists into a major cultural event that attracts elite tastemakers and entrepreneurs. Directors Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter provide a concise history of what started out in 1986 as a spontaneous meeting of friends on a Northern California beach to set fire to a wooden effigy as a symbol of rebirth.
The event quickly outgrew its impromptu beach setting and moved to the Black Rock Desert in Northern Nevada, where it’s been held since 1990. Attendance grew steadily over the years, and the film features some intense footage from the 1996 event, when unregulated fires became dangerous, and some attendees were injured by a car driven recklessly through the camp. Spark chronicles the planning and execution of the 2012 event, by which point Burning Man had acquired a substantial bureaucratic infrastructure while attempting to maintain its initial anarchic, artistic spirit. Brown and Deeter strike a balance between scenes of sometimes contentious planning meetings and footage of the event itself, which is colorful and creative and full of energy, even in its more carefully planned format.
For the people who attend Burning Man every year, the event is a spiritual experience as much as a party, and the movie also follows a few dedicated Burners as they prepare their intricate exhibitions for the upcoming event. A military veteran who calls himself Otto Von Danger oversees a massive operation to create a mock Wall Street that can then be burned down, while Jon La Grace represents the potential corporatization of Burning Man, with his pre-constructed camp that hosts officially branded TED talks. Burning Man makes room for both of them, though, along with everyone in between, and the filmmakers allow for critical voices without taking away from their overall celebration of the Burning Man concept.
That can make Spark feel a bit like promotional material, even with the occasional dissenting opinion (including original co-founder John Law, who left the organization in 1996 rather than participate in the burgeoning bureaucracy). But everyone involved is so genuinely dedicated to making Burning Man the best it can be that the relentless positivity never comes off as disingenuous. When a new ticketing lottery system inspires harsh criticism from longtime Burners, the organizers sit down with the angry attendees and do their best to come up with a solution. An event that draws 60,000 people (and has grown to draw even more in subsequent years) can never please everyone who attends, but it’s not hard to believe that Burning Man’s organizers wish that they could.
As a documentary, Spark is slick and fast-paced, and the filmmakers give each interview subject enough time to make an impression without digging particularly deep. Once the movie gets to the event itself, the pacing lags a bit, and there are sequences set to music in which the camera just zooms around various Burning Man venues and installations that come off like filler to extend the movie to feature length. Then again, one of the most important things about Burning Man is the overall vibe, and just spending time among blissed-out attendees might be the best way to capture that. Even if you can never get on Burning Man’s wavelength, Spark effectively conveys why so many people are.