Filmmakers Unesu Lee and Paul Barnett gathered some friends and subjects, packed their digital cameras, and set off to the desert to make an intimate film about a festival that clearly has great importance in their lives. (One of the filmmakers actually proposed to his sun-burnt, flabbergasted girlfriend from behind the safety of his camera.)
Burning Man takes place every year in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, transforming a barren landscape into a thriving community with a population of upwards of 30,000 people in search of a spiritual experience. Festival goers camp out, practice yoga, wander the grounds, create massive and temporary works of art, admire the far flung creativity of others, and meditate. At night, at least as far as I could tell, they attend raves, let down their hair and dance. (And if they are on drugs, the filmmakers aren't saying--it all happens off-camera.)
It's an interesting world presented to us, both one hundred percent artificial (a vibrant city fabricated from nothing) and very real (tremendous amounts of planning, long shower lines, countless returning artists and hippies who attend year after year.) The subjects vary from a San Francisco cab driver Michael Winaker, the filmmaker's girlfriend Samantha Weaver, heiress Anna Getty, to aspiring African American filmmaker Kevin Epps, literally whisked out of a San Francisco housing project and plopped into a primarily upper middle class, Caucasian playground.
Unfortunately, none of these chosen people's stories were particularly compelling. Samantha Weaver's earnest struggle to create a large circular maze in the desert sand struck me as slightly silly, and I had limited patience with uber-wealthy Anna Getty's quest to both find herself and party down -- perhaps an unfair bias on my part, but the fact that Getty is self-conscious of her circumstances does nothing to change the fact. Kevin Epps, brought to Burning Man like a subject in a psyche experiment, proclaimed to be having a profound experience, but somehow, his repeated assurances rang hollow.
Even so--living in contemporary America's concrete desert of shopping malls, high rises, and cable TV, it's refreshing to see people who willingly and eagerly forego commerce to use their time making art and seeking spiritual meaning--and don't mind getting a little dirty in the process.
"Confessions of a Burning Man" is playing at the Angelika Theater in New York. Other screening dates are listed on the film's official web site.