Burning questions - Page 4

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'.

"This film is about ordinary people following extraordinary dreams," Brown said at a press screening at the Roxie last month. "Burning Man is the context, but it's not necessarily what it's about."

When I asked Brown about whether he paid the LLC for access and the right to use footage they filmed on the playa — something I know it has demanded of other film and photo projects — Brown paused for almost a full minute before admitting he did.

"We saw it as location fees. We're making an investment, they're making an investment," he said, refusing to provide details of the agreement. "The arrangement we had with Burning Man is similar to the arrangements anyone else has had out there."

Goodell said the LLC's standard agreement calls for all filmmakers to either pay a set site fee or a percentage of the profits. "It's standard in all of the agreements to pay a site fee," Goodell said, noting that the LLC recently charged Vogue Magazine $150,000 to do a photo shoot during the event.

But the issue of paying subjects is a controversial one in the documentary film world, according to a couple of veteran Bay Area documentary filmmakers we interviewed (one spoke only on background). For documentaries that present themselves as journalism, documentary filmmaker Chris Metzler told us, "The rule is, you don't pay a subject because it will corrupt the process and authenticity you're trying to capture."

That rule has become more of a guideline in recent years, particularly as technological advances have made it easier to become a documentary filmmaker. And even the guideline is a little squishy when it comes to interviewing consultants or powerful people who expect to be compensated for their time, or with wanting to ensure people of limited means can take part in a film's promotion.

Metzler also said that a financial arrangement can influence a film less than an ideological or cultural affinity. That can be particularly strong in the Burning Man world, as Weitz told us, conceding that most art done on Burning Man ends up being at least a little hagiographic: "I think it's inevitable whenever anyone writes about or makes a film about Burning Man, because we love it."

Metzler said he simply doesn't pay sources, but he also said the determining factor should be, "Does it change what you have access to and how people behave?"


There are at least a couple ways for burner true believers to look at the event, its culture, and its leadership. One is to see Burning Man as a unique and precious gift that has been bestowed on its attendees by Harvey, its wise and selfless founder, and the leadership team he assembled, which he formalized as an LLC in 1997.

That seems to be the dominant viewpoint, based on reactions that I've received to past critical coverage (and which I expect to hear again in reaction to this article), and it is the viewpoint of the makers of this film. "They've dedicated their lives to creating this platform that allows people to go out and create art," Brown said.

Another point-of-view is to see Burning Man as the collective, collaborative effort that it claims to be, a DIY experiment conducted by the voluntary efforts of the tens of thousands of people who create the art and culture of Black Rock City from scratch, year after year.

Yes, we should appreciate Harvey and the leaders of the event, and they should get reasonable retirement packages for their years of effort. But they've also had some of the coolest jobs in town for a long time, and they now freely travel the world as sort of countercultural gurus, not really working any harder than most San Franciscans.


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

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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