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.

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