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?

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


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.


Steve, thanks for the interesting round-up of current info. There are definitely more than two ways of looking at the relationship between the "founders" and the community. But right down the middle of the two extremes is the truth. Each requires the other to function. The organizers have nothing to organize without the community and the community has nothing to attend without the organizers. Various hot-headed critics have indignantly proclaimed that they could do it better and do it right... and I'm still waiting to go to their "better" events. Truth is, yeah, the organizers' jobs are "cool" but boy are they frustrating. I've been over to their offices to volunteer and seen people crying over relentless fiscal attacks from the govt. and the crushing cruelty of community critics. It stinks. I wouldn't want their jobs! It's not as bad as being President of the US, but it's close! I don't know how they can stand doing it, because just watching it is enough for me. Yes, we need them as much as they need us.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 05, 2013 @ 8:57 am

Never interviewed for the film. Wasn't interested in being a balance point for a BM commercial. They'd edit me to look like an idiot to make Larry look good. So I didn't return any of their phone calls after the first converstaion with the female director lady who I thought was kinda doing it for the money. I'll never see the movie and frankly I only skim the article. It's just a small sampling of what is really happening.

I'll give you a clue to the twist ending... it all resolves in a real estate scam...

kisses chicken

Posted by chicken john on Jun. 05, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

Would they really have to edit you?

Posted by anon on Aug. 11, 2013 @ 8:12 pm

Larry Harvey and his corporate cabal have been telling us for years that the grip they hold on trademark is to protect the burner community from commercial exploitation; the truth is that they have been jealously guarding their trademarks in order to capitalize on them themselves. John Law sued Harvey over this years ago, and ended up settling out of court for an undisclosed sum.

The idea of Ford, Coca-Cola, etc. capitalizing on Burning Man by potentially showing burners on the playa in their commercials, displaying the Burning Man logo, or otherwise attempting to market their products to people who think Burning Man is cool has been presented to us as some terrible threat to burner culture for years. In presenting that threat to us, Larry Harvey and his minions have terrified thousands of burners with the very same Bogey Man employed by supporters of legislation like the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The simple fact is that gay marriage does not pose any kind of threat to anyone's hetero marriage, and putting the Burning Man logo and other trademarks does not pose any kind of threat to burners or burner culture.

All you have to do is ask around to find out how many giant corporations have been thwarted from commercially exploiting Burning Man, versus how many burners have been slapped down for things like posting photos and videos of their own artwork to the Internet, simply because the photos were taken at Burning Man. Harvey jealously guards his trademark ownership, pushes the idea of 'decommodification' on people like it's sacred holy writ, and then turns around and ruthlessly, cynically capitalizes on those very trademarks, thus proving that all his talk about "protecting the community" is just hot air in justification of greed and exploitation. Decommodification isn't for Larry, it's for Larry's cattle, and for anyone who might subvert his ability to turn yet another buck on something we all create together.

Meanwhile, Larry and his crew continue to promote volunteerism at Burning Man, suckering a huge number of young people into working like slaves in a ferociously hostile environment, doing the Org's dirty work for no pay. Sure, it's character-building, but it would still be character-building if it came with a well-earned paycheck.

How much money is enough, Larry?

Posted by Whatsblem the Pro on Aug. 11, 2013 @ 10:02 am
Posted by civil courts decide on Jun. 23, 2014 @ 4:40 pm

Oh, and let's not forget that the transition from a for-profit corporation to a non-profit has been imminent for years now. . . and that even when they do become non-profit, the Org's Board of Directors will still be able to skim off fat salaries and a boatload of other perks and income opportunities. We'll get slightly more transparency out of the deal, and they'll get less work and a greater ability to foist off the labor onto starry-eyed volunteers with kool-aid stains all over their mouths.

Huzzah, Burning Man is going non-profit. *hurl*

Posted by Whatsblem the Pro on Aug. 11, 2013 @ 10:06 am

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