News & Review on Dust & Illusions

Seeing clearly

Burning Man turns an engineer into a filmmaker

By Meredith J. Cooper meredithc@newsreview.com

QUITE A SPECTACLE
From its inception on a beach in San Francisco, Burning Man has been at once an experiment in community, art, living in harsh conditions and fiery, dirty fun. The event coincides with Labor Day Weekend.

For those who have never made the trek out to the Nevada desert for Burning Man, the concept can be difficult to envision. A huge gathering of people, camping in the dust, creating impossibly large pieces of art, partying, and at the end, burning a wooden man—that’s the down-and-dirty of it. But, as documentary filmmaker Olivier Bonin shows in Dust & Illusions, it’s about so much more.

“What I see as being really important about Burning Man is all these people working creatively together to build something,” Bonin said by phone. The Frenchman, who’s been in the U.S. for a decade, discovered the event in 2003. Four days on the playa were enough to inspire him, then a hardware engineer, to pick up a video camera—something he’d never done before. “It helps people think about the impact they want to make with art.”

The documentary, which will show at the Pageant Theatre on June 25 (the 8:30 show sold out last week, so he’s added a 6:30 showing as well), is his message to that effect: It’s always been about art and pushing boundaries, and Burning Man could use a little more of both.

Bonin chronicles the event’s evolution, from its birthplace on a San Francisco beach to now, and he talks to many of the characters involved in its inception. While many people have heard the stories about how it started with 20 people and has grown to a full-fledged city of 50,000, some may not know its true roots in two oddball societies in San Francisco hell-bent on challenging people’s ideas of normalcy. Even the move to Black Rock Desert in Nevada grew out of an experience driving out there to witness a few dozen crazy artists play a giant game of croquet on the playa.

One of the most mesmerizing aspects of Dust & Illusions is that Bonin was able to track down footage of many of these events, from the first burn to the croquet game to the Suicide Club (one of the originating groups) hosting a formal dinner on the Golden Gate Bridge.

“A lot of people film out there, but it’s almost impossible to get hold of that footage after the event,” Bonin said.

Well, he did. And as part of his artful contribution—beyond this documentary—he offered his own footage to the art groups he filmed. It was these groups, after all, that inspired him to create the documentary in the first place.

One of these groups, which figures fairly prominently in the film, is the Flaming Lotus Girls, a large group of creative women—and men—who work year-round to build large-scale fire art. “I wanted to see Burning Man through their eyes,” Bonin said. After his second year at the event, he chronicled their work from design to completion.

During that process, he said, he learned a lot about the inner workings of the Burning Man Corp. and from there gained access to a wide range of people who are intimately involved. Through their interviews, he’s able to show the struggle between allowing Burning Man to grow while still maintaining its original mission: to challenge normal society, create art and community.

“Burning Man has the potential to put a stronger emphasis on the art. That’s something I think is so important, so forgotten in education, and in our everyday lives,” Bonin said. He finished the interview with a challenge to loyal burners: “If they really love this event and want it to continue, they need to think, ‘How could we renew it and reinvent it so it is as important as it was to the people who started it 20 years ago?’ ”

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