Friday, June 7, 2013

Jason goes to Docfest--Opening Night

It's time to celebrate real life for 2 1/2 weeks in the best way I know how--by watching movies about it. The SF Documentary Film Festival kicked off last night, and for those who have paid attention to the calendar for the past few years, yes, this is a new season for it. For a long time it has been in the fall (October or November) and now it's in the summer. I think that's where it's going to stay? You also might notice that they've added several venues. In addition to the two Roxie screens, it's up in the Balboa, the New Parkway in Oakland, the Aquarius down in Palo Alto (conveniently near my work), and all the way down in Santa Cruz for a bonus weekend at the Rio. Check it out yourself here.

There was a huge crowd crammed into the Roxi for the opening night film, SPARK: A BURNING MAN STORY. Most were Burners themselves (as am I. In fact, a little secret, I've been Burning longer than I've been going to film festivals) and it seems as though most of them were actually in the movie. I was not, and that's probably a good thing. But it is part of what frustrates me about nearly every Burning Man documentary I've ever seen--the event they capture is very, very different from my Burning Man experience. Now that's not necessarily bad, nor is it necessarily avoidable. Everyone has a different experience out there. I just feel sorry for someone who watches one of these glowing 'everything is awesome out there!' movies and thinks 'that looks like fun, I wanna do that!' but instead ends up going to Burning Man.

Major elements laughably missing from the documentary:

  • Nudity--there is some, but not a whole lot. In the Q&A, the filmmakers pointed out that since they were mostly following builders around, there just aren't a lot of people wielding a nail gun or welding torch while naked. They claim they are actually big fans of public nudity.
  • Drugs. Really? Really!!? I have no explanation for how they can just ignore drugs entirely. I remember my first year thinking 'This is cool! Why would anyone take mind-altering substances when reality is already so altered out here?' But you know what's even more fun than not doing drugs at Burning Man? Doing drugs at Burning Man*.

What SPARK does have more of than any other Burning Man documentary is solid production values, thrilling cinematography, a soaring soundtrack. It actually looks like a professional movie rather than someone's vacation video. And it emphasizes the "built" nature of it all, and the process of building it. It follows three general groups of builders--first the staff that organizes it all (where we get a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes work, including the turmoil of the 2012 ticket fiasco,) then the art builders, and then the large theme camp builders. We see the creation (and destruction) of Burning Wall Street (the creator, Otto Von Danger, is easily my favorite person in the movie, and got a big cheer for pointing out that he doesn't welcome the fucking hippies who show up with nothing and expect the community to provide them with everything.) We see the creation of Playa Skool which has maybe grown too big to manage and is in the center of the "Plug n' Play" camps debate. And most of all we see the organizers, working hard, complaining about how hard they work, debating the future of the event, and looking over the angry e-mails they got over the ticket fiasco (at one point humorously commenting on the number of u's in "Fuuuuuuuuuck Youuuuuuuu!")

I have to step back for a moment. This year will be my 16th Burn in a row, and I'm a little too close to the subject to be able to review this as a movie. I will say it's a movie by True Believers, for True Believers. While it shows some conflict (even interviewing estranged co-founder John Law) it doesn't offer any critical look at the conflict. John Law left because he saw that for Burning Man to keep growing they would need to bring in more societal infrastructure than he was comfortable with. But was John Law right? The movie doesn't even ask the question, much less answer it. We see the angry e-mails about the ticket fiasco, but were people right to be angry? Instead, we get self-aggrandizing statements about how they solve the problems that other people walk away from. Or worse yet, Larry Harvey talking about how the ticket kerfuffle was a good thing, because now people know that if they want to go they should be prepared to actually build something. And that's the ethos this film (and apparently the current leadership of Burning Man) embrace--that building something is good, be it community, art, or a camp. And that building something bigger is automatically better.

Well, let me offer a counterpoint. As I said, this year will be my 16th Burn. I think I'm pretty much a certifiable jaded old-timer. For all the anger and bitterness leading up to last year's burn, I still had  a great time once I was there. But let me tell you about my favorite thing from that Burn (ummm...other than the nice pretty lady I had sexy fun-times with.) That was a guy walking by my camp holding a sign that read, "FREE SHRUGS." I yelled at him that he was the best thing I saw all week, and he turned to me and shrugged. It was awesome. But according to Larry Harvey, he needs to learn that when you go to the playa you should really build something there. Apparently it's not enough to just be the best thing I saw all week, you have to build a big, grandiose monument to...whatever the hell you're out there to monumentalize. Otherwise you're not participating as much as you could/should be. Well...fuck that.

Good movie, though.

Running Time: 112 minutes
My Total Minutes: 328,933

*Alcohol. Alcohol is a drug, and it's perfectly legal. That's all I mean, I drink a lot at Burning Man. Ask anyone.
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