By Helen Halbert
Publish Date: July 8, 2009
There’s an adage among veteran Burners said so frequently that it’s become a bit of a joke: Burning Man was better last year. Again.For director Olivier Bonin, the idea might just have some truth to it. His new documentary, Dust & Illusions: A History of Burning Man, traces the history of the hippie arts festival from its origins. It also offers criticism of the event that, in recent years, has attracted as many as 50,000 people to the middle of the Nevada desert for an eight-day celebration of self-expression, community, and rejection of commodification.
The festival culminates in the ritualistic bonfire of a Wicker Man–esque effigy.
Granted, there’s a fair bit of drug use. But there are also costumes, performances, workshops, and gift exchanges. Most importantly, there are also large-scale and interactive art installations of anything and everything, from Mad Max–era art cars to steampunk walking mechanical spiders (the latter, Mondo Spider, can be seen on Commercial Drive during Car-Free Days and the Parade of Lost Souls).
Dust & Illusions: The History of Burning Man premieres tonight (July 8th) in Vancouver at the Rio Theatre (1660 E. Broadway) at 9 p.m. Tickets are $11.50 in advance or $15 at the door; Bonin will be in attendance to answer all your post-screening burning questions.
Bonin attended his first Burning Man in 2003. “I thought the following year that I’d just go there and film a little bit and edit a bit; make a little, quick film out of it,” Bonin told the Straight on the line from San Francisco. The film ended up taking him five years to complete.
Life on the playa—the dry lakebed of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert—can be a demanding environment. Dehydration and heat stroke are real threats and Burners must weather frequent dust storms.
“It’s very hard to film out there because of the conditions,” Bonin explained. “But the second reason is because you don’t really want to be filming out there; you don’t want to point your camera into whatever people are doing. I figured that out quickly in the first year and once I started to discover that there was a whole history of the event that was really interesting, I decided to approach it [the film] in a very different way.”
Bonin met with artists before the event and followed them throughout their year of producing art and preparing for Burning Man. The film mainly focuses on the Flaming Lotus Girls, a San Francisco–based artist collective who design and build sculptures from steel, copper, glass, wood, as well as LEDs, lighting, and flame throwers.
“But the film is really the story of the event from the late ’70s in San Francisco,” Bonin said.
The documentary presents the entire history of the festival, from its humble beginnings in the ’70s and the first official Burning Man in 1986 on a Californian beach to today’s incarnation: a functioning yet temporary micro-metropolis known as Black Rock City.
For many, the event is still meaningful as a way of encouraging creativity and community. But Bonin worries that the principles of Burning Man are becoming overshadowed by the increasing number of people in attendance.
“The event was created in the first place to escape from larger society and culture and to create something new, and the [film’s] criticism mainly comes from the fact that Burning Man is more and more becoming a spectacle,” Bonin explains.
While Bonin acknowledges that the event is exceptional because it provides grants and funding to artists, but, citing a $300,000 price tag for the Burning Man effigy in 2007, he still thinks the organizers could budget better in order to redirect more money into art projects.
“I don’t have a problem with people having fun, and I think Burning Man has created something very important—it inspires people to create art and do this in a noncommercial fashion and try to rediscover themselves and their society through the production of art—and I hope that the goal of the organizers is to keep focusing on this in the future and to find new ways to do this.”