Burning questions

Spark debuts at DocFest with a sympathetic look at Black Rock City LLC's intention to gift Burning Man back to the people. But is it true?

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Burning Man board member Michael Mikel cruises past Burn Wall Street during the 2012 event in this image from 'Spark'.

steve@sfbg.com

A documentary called Spark: A Burning Man Story is arriving on the big screen, with dreams of wide distribution, at a pivotal moment for the San Francisco-based corporation that has transformed the annual desert festival into a valuable global brand supported by a growing web of interconnected burner collectives around the world.

Is that a coincidence, or is this interesting and visually spectacular (if slightly hagiographic) film at least partially intended to shore up popular support for the leadership of Burning Man as the founders cash out of Black Rock City LLC and supposedly begin to transfer more control to a new nonprofit entity?

Filmed during last year's ticket fiasco — in which high demand and a flawed lottery system created temporary scarcity that left many essential veteran burners without tickets during the busy preparation season — both the filmmakers and leaders of Burning Man say they needed to trust one another.

After all, technology-entrepreneur-turned-director Steve Brown was given extensive, exclusive access to the sometimes difficult and painful internal discussions about how to deal with that crisis. And if he was looking to make a film about the flawed and dysfunctional leadership of the event — ala Olivier Bonin's Dust & Illusions — he certainly had plenty of footage to make that storyline work.

But that wasn't going to happen, not this time — for a few reasons. One, Brown is a Burning Man true believer and relative newbie who took its leaders at face value and didn't want to delve into the details or criticisms of how the event is managed or who will chart its future. As he told us, that just wasn't the story he wanted to tell.

"We got trusted by the founders of Burning Man to do this story," he told us. "They were in the process of going into a nonprofit and they wanted to get their message out into the world."

Two, Black Rock City LLC needed to sign off on the film for it to be distributed, given that the corporation controls the use of images from the event. "Could Burning Man have prevented us from distributing this film? Yeah, they probably could have," Brown told us. And during my own experience writing and promoting a book about Burning Man, I learned that its leaders resent criticism and can make or break efforts to promote books or movies to the larger burner community.

Finally, as is increasingly the case with many documentary films, the filmmakers and their subjects are essentially in a partnership. Brown and the LLC's leaders reluctantly admitted to us that there is a financial arrangement between the two entities and that the LLC will receive revenues from the film, although they wouldn't discuss details with us.

Chris Weitz, an executive producer on the film, is also on the board of directors of the new nonprofit, The Burning Man Project, along with his wife, Mercedes Martinez. Both were personally appointed by the six members of the LLC's board to help guide Burning Man into a new era.

Brown insists that these relationships had no influence on the film and that the LLC neither requested nor received any editorial changes. "I made it clear to them that I'm only going to do a film that is completely independent," Brown said.

And his co-director, Jessie Deeter, is a respected journalist and veteran documentary filmmaker whose strong reputation lured estranged Burning Man co-founder John Law to participate in the film, offering the only real questioning of the event's leadership (although it focused on the decisions in the late 1990s to continue growing the event, not on its more recent stewardship and questions of relinquishing some control to the larger community).

"I'm fair and I'm really proud of my reputation as a journalist," Deeter told us, noting how important she thought it was to have Law's contrarian voice in the film.

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