Spark: A Burning Man Story is at its best when it’s focused on the administrative hurdles faced by the group of professionals who put the (in?)famous desert art festival together. Starting in 1986, Burning Man founders Larry Harvey and Jerry James ultimately outlined 10 principles for festival-goers, including radical self-expression, radical self-reliance, gifting, radical inclusion and communal effort. The festival — which takes place north of Reno, Nevada — attracted artists, bohemians, partiers and, more recently, social media influencers and wealthier participants. The YouTube and Instagram age have brought Burning Man into the mainstream, making it known as a massive party atmosphere. Enough to where watching Spark, initially released in 2013, feels like a glimpse at a past iteration of the festival just as it entered the New Media era. After seven years, this is already a historical document.
This makes the film a bit bifurcated. The first half is borderline thrilling, as administrative personnel and founders who have long relationships with the festival and the artists who pilgrimage to it try their best to manage a 60,000 gathering festival in the desert without breaking the connotations of self-reliance and self-expression. As more and more attendees compete for space and tickets, it starts becoming clear that many are searching for the Burning Man experience rather than trying to make their own. But you can’t well turn down exposure or new attendees, can you? It’s a huge headache and kind of fascinating in the most mundane way possible. The festival has such a reputation for wild happenings that it’s great to see the people holding up the scaffolding do their best to craft a safe environment.
However, Spark loses steam when it shifts focus to a plethora of artists and attendees preparing and participating in the festival itself. Frankly, a lot of Burning Man is captured with more energy and excitement through the feeds of attendees than through this documentary footage. Although it’s well shot, and certainly empathetically edited towards attendees having real and authentic experiences, it’s just not as evocative as the first half of Spark. Perhaps because in 2020, Burning Man and its various subsidiary festivals have been so well-documented and, frankly, commoditized. Any number of documentaries chronicle artists having a good time, and they advertise themselves.
It’s possible I am just a fuddy-duddy looking for a unique take on something that no longer feels unique, but no bones about it: To watch well-meaning folks working to figure out permits for their much cooler event is my kind of party, and it’s on that level that I recommend Spark.