Spark: A Burning Man Story isn’t so much a story as a feature-length commercial for the annual hippie-courting festival held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Directors Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter spend cursory time detailing the origins of the event, which in 2012 attracted 60,000 participants, many dressed in outrageous costumes (bunny suits, disco-ball helmets, Mad Max-inspired fashions), driving vehicles shaped like sea monsters and snails, and dancing and frolicking amid extravagant booths and art installations. Additionally, the directors touch upon the underlying transitions that helped remodel Burning Man from a freeform, no-rules experience to one increasingly shaped by corporate influence. But these topics and the focus on three people planning interactive exhibits are mere distractions from the fact that this doc is essentially a celebratory advertisement.
There are plenty of fantastical sights and sounds in the beautifully photographed Spark, which captures Burning Man in all its insane glory. Founded on a set of collective principles—including participation (no spectators permitted), gifting (no money is allowed; all transactions are trades), and the rule that nothing be left behind when the festivities are finished—the weeklong gathering attracts those seeking to escape the daily grind and find themselves. Not addressed is the central role drugs play in the Burning Man experience, but that’s in keeping with Brown and Deeter’s refusal to compromise their laudatory film with anything that might be thorny, or less than wholly positive. Their primary interest is in propping up the festival as a beacon of light in the lives of its many participants, from the gala’s six co-founders to the doc’s nominal three subjects, who all endeavor to get their elaborate projects to the desert in time for Burning Man’s start.
Those individuals’ struggles are given significant screen time, yet are only superficially depicted; while they repeatedly refer to financial difficulties and personal sacrifices, the doc never actually explains, for example, how they funded their sophisticated Burning Man endeavors. The lack of depth is most frustrating in the discussion of the out-of-control 1996 festival (full of rampaging fires and unmanageably large crowds), and how it led Burning Man to evolve from its original, everyone-do-what-they-want incarnation to the more bureaucratically organized and managed entity it is today.
That shift, which led to the departure of co-founder John Law, speaks to a larger friction between issues of freedom and control, as well as the sometimes-inescapable need to sacrifice fundamental elements of an ethos in order to let a movement survive and thrive. Yet while Law comes across as the most interesting of the film’s various players—in large part because he’s so at peace with his decision to abandon the increasingly lucrative operation over his principled belief that Burning Man should remain spontaneous, and emancipated from corporate or organizational control—Spark glosses over this crucial moment. More troubling, it does so while also skimming over the need, due to increased popularity, to institute a ticket lottery—a system both logistically essential and antithetical to the festival’s inclusive spirit. Even with regards to these questions of Burning Man’s bedrock nature, the doc proves more concerned with promotion than analysis or inquiry, thereby making it a disingenuous non-fiction portrait: an inhibited look at an uninhibited event.