Film reviews

Burning Man: Art on Fire – Documentary Review

When you hear the words “Burning Man” what do you think of? Some of you might think of Edward Woodward trapped inside The Wicker Man at the end of the film of the same name (we don’t talk about the other one), or you might think of the week long festival that is held in America every year. The second is what we are talking about here, but there is a good chance that even if you have heard of it you might not truly know what the festival is all about. Some think of it as an excuse for a bunch of hippies to go crazy in the desert, some mistakenly think it is a festival akin to our Glastonbury, and some see it as a place to create art in a place unlike anywhere else on earth. Maybe all of these things are true in some way or another, but for a lot of people Burning Man is about family, it is about coming home. 

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Burning Man: Art on Fire is a documentary that gives an insider look into the festival that was founded by Larry Harvey, who died shortly before filming began. It is the first film of it’s type to focus on the story of the art and artists, rather than that of virgin Burners (first time attendees) and was granted unique access to what goes on behind the scenes to make the event happen. The filmmakers’ proposal was given a letter of support from the CEO of Burning Man, which is apparently an unprecedented event. 

The festival originated in 1986, when Harvey and his friend Jerry Goodell built an eight foot tall man and burnt him on a beach in San Francisco as part of their Summer Solstice celebrations. Since then it has moved to the barren Black Rock Desert in Nevada, the Man has reached over one hundred feet tall and attendance is around seventy thousand people each year. A city is constructed, complete with a temporary airport, MASH like stations staffed by qualified doctors, and its own security team, the Black Rock Rangers, who work with local law enforcement. Then once the event is over it vanishes completely as though it was never there. There are no heaps of rubbish and discarded tents at a Burning Man due to the Leave No Trace rules.

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Directed by Gerald Fox and produced by Sophia Swires, the film focuses on the construction of The Man and of the Temple, the two major structures which are newly designed and built each year, for the 2018 event which had the theme ‘I, Robot’, and on six of the artist’s whose work is amongst the hundreds of art installations that can be found on the Playa, and some of the unique characters who are long-term Burners. Shot very much like a fly-on-the wall, or a grain of sand being billowed around the desert, we get to experience the equal stress and joy that French architect Arthur Mamou Mani goes through as his Temple, Galaxia, is brought to life in front of him, at which he also marries his girlfriend during the event, to the emotional finale of watching it burn to the ground on the Sunday night.

There are very emotional tributes to Harvey from his friends, such as Andrew Johnstone who designs and builds the base units on which the famous Man stands each year, and we also experience the highs and lows of longtime burner Flash Hopkins, who not only is mourning Harvey, but also his adoptive son who passed away during the week of the event.

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The film features some amazing aerial shots of the event at night, when the desert is aglow with neon and flames, and is framed by a unique soundtrack created by the one woman orchestra known as HÄANA, a mixture of electronic and vocal sounds influenced by Nordic and Icelandic themes. Art on Fire is very much a celebration of Burning Man, of the life of the founder and how he touched people’s lives. There is no focus on any of the negatives that are attached to the event, such as the gentrification by the Silicon Valley moguls, and the ever rising price of admission. This focuses on the community spirit and creativity that only seems to come from a week spent in Black Rock City. It is possibly the closest to the event that you get without making the real trek into the desert. Definitely a film to watch if you are a Burner, or are fascinated to learn more about what goes into this otherworldly event.

Burning Man: Art on Fire is out on VOD from 22nd August.

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