Spark: A Burning Man Story opens with a plethora of billowing bonfires, neon-bathed bare flesh, and scorched desert earth—a montage of bacchanalian revelry that introduces us to the seven-day art-instillation-cum-orgy known as Burning Man. What began in 1986 as a small annual bonfire at Baker Beach in San Francisco has since evolved into a weeklong, live-action Hieronymus Bosch painting in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, with over 50,000 revelers in attendance. Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter’s documentary attempts an intimate look into the lives of some of the festival’s participants, known as burners, as well as the staff of Black Rock City, LLC that works tirelessly to ensure that Burning Man will return for another year. Unfortunately, the doc often resembles the flamboyant experimental art pieces erected in the desert by the burners throughout the festival: all surface flash and hollow interior.
Spark’s stab at a narrative through line is to highlight a fiasco where veteran burners were left without tickets after event organizers switched to a lottery-distribution system. While that was certainly a dramatic situation for burners and organizers alike, threatening to derail preparations for last year’s festival, the film fails to convey the severity of the debacle. After two or three scenes of frantic conversations between organizers and the founders of Burning Man, the situation appears magically resolved, and arrangements carry on as if nothing had happened. What could have been an intriguing look at an organization’s internal growing pains in attempting to transition from a nebulous collection of partiers into something resembling a sustainable business is squandered within minutes.
The doc puts several burners and their all-consuming hobbies on display, from a female welder who devotes every penny she earns to her Burning Man experience to a former marine racing to complete his dream project (a massive Potemkin village version of Wall Street consisting of multiple farcical buildings mocking the 1%), but it doesn’t take the time to examine why Burning Man inspires their level of fanaticism, overshadowing human interest with a gluttony of B roll. Ultimately, the doc suffers from a too-roving eye: Though it ostensibly wishes to reveal the sacrifice that’s required to make Burning Man go off without a hitch, it’s more interested in the spectacle of painted ravers writhing around in the desert.