Desert Dreams

film templehugA new documentary, ‘SPARK: A Burning Man Story,’ explores the complexities of Burning Man

In 2012, after 26 years of ballooning in popularity, Burning Man was on the verge of popping. And Steve Brown’s documentary crew was there with cameras rolling.

A year earlier, the entrepreneur and first-time filmmaker set about making a feature film that centered on a trio of artists as they struggled to realize their visions for Burning Man, a week-long gathering in the Nevada desert that takes place around Labor Day each year. When the Burning Man Organization (BMORG) granted the film access to behind-the-scenes meetings at its San Francisco headquarters, Brown and co-director Jessie Deeter could not have anticipated what was in store.  

On the heels of selling out for the first time in 2011, three times as many people applied for tickets in 2012 as there were tickets available. This sent ticketless attendees, called “Burners”—many of whom contribute art cars, theme camps, art installations, music and more—into a frenzy, and forced organizers to reckon with the possibility that the event had outgrown itself.
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“For a while it seemed that we might have filmed the last Burning Man ever,” Brown says of the 2011 installment, which they documented for the picture.
As the crew captured tense debates that erupted among Burning Man’s leaders, the original plan morphed into “a much more interesting and important story.”

“In hindsight, I guess we were very fortunate that [BMORG] trusted us to keep the cameras rolling during some very trying and challenging times,” says Brown.

The result is SPARK: A Burning Man Story, which screens on Wednesday, July 10 at the Del Mar Theatre in Santa Cruz. Viewers hoping for a voyeuristic montage of desert partying won’t find it in this documentary, much to the delight of Burners, who will be the first to tell you that Burning Man is not a spectator event. (Although, rest assured, there are plenty of visuals of that iconic, kaleidoscopic landscape.) Instead, SPARK  weaves together an insightful examination of the dreams that must be conquered for this fleeting city to survive. While the three featured artists overcome unlikely odds to bring their creations to the desert, we also get a glimpse inside the larger vision—which, until now, remained largely behind closed doors—that makes the entire event possible.

“It’s easy for people to take for granted the fact that others have invested their entire lives into this event that has served as a platform for so much creative inspiration,” says Brown. “Things like Burning Man don’t happen by accident.”

The film makes use of a trove of archival footage to shed light on Burning Man’s origin and evolution, starting with the first, seemingly innocuous bonfire on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986. The history lesson rightly includes a look at the seminal year of 1996, when the blossoming event, by then taking place in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, still maintained its free-for-all structure (or lack thereof). Cars sped, guns were fired, and organization was loose. When a record 10,000 people showed up, mayhem—and some tragedies—ensued. It was a fork in the road for Burning Man; the first existential crisis that set it on the path (one paved with infrastructure, rules and year-round planning) of perpetual growth that led to the 2012 debacle.    

But when the dust settled on last year’s ticket storm, everything worked out just fine: most people who wanted to go did and, as Burning Man founder Larry Harvey tells us in SPARK, the “kerfuffle” film skydiveractually made the community stronger. By documenting this episode, the film demonstrates the level to which Burning Man becomes a philosophical and analytical discussion of values, culture, community, commerce, control, and more. 

The Burning Man narrative presented in SPARK is just “one story of thousands,” says Brown, but one that he hopes will spur important discussions as the community forges the path forward.

“The next chapter of Burning Man is being written right now,” says Brown, “but the film hints to the possibility that a community based on values of self-expression and creative collaboration can exist anywhere, not just in the Black Rock Desert.” 

 SPARK: A Burning Man Story screens at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, July 10 at the Del Mar Theatre, 1124 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Director and Spark Films founder Steve Brown. Tickets can be purchased in advance at The film is slated for wider release this fall. Visit for more information.

PHOTOS: Top two taken by Jason Mongue. 

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