On Thursday night, I went to a screening of Olivier Bonin’s documentary on Burning Man, Dust and Illusions.
This was at Cinema 21 in Portland, Oregon, one of the only independent movie theaters in the state. The showing was at 9pm. The line — which wrapped around the block in both directions — was sprinkled with not a few blinky lights and furry costumes. An Amazonian woman in green fluorescent fishnets tore my ticket.
Inside was a movie audience quite different from the general public. People were standing around in groups, talking, hugging, and connecting. It seemed likely that entire camps had come to the film together. It was also clear that a good portion of the audience was coming for the spectacle, and had not attend a Burning man event.
I checked out the balcony, hoping for a grand view of the screen. More talking, laughing, slapping. Someone lit up a joint. Another guy passed a flask around. Now THIS was a movie audience.
I ultimately chose a seat in the main auditorium, and it was packed. The start of the screening was delayed so we could cram more people in. Bonin stood up to introduce the film and said it was one of the best turn-outs he had seen so far in ~35 screenings.
Olivier shared with us that he had just added ~3 minutes of footage to the start of the film, so we were seeing a new version, never-before-screened.
Then the film began.
I didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t even seen a trailer. Would this be a starry-eyed, fanciful celebration of found footage? Would it be a spare, haunting docudrama about the difficulty of survival in the desert? Would it be a harsh, finger-pointing denouncement of the spiritual poverty of the modern world?
The film turned out to be none of these things, although it included elements of all of them. This film explores art, politics, power, conformity, and the meaning of community. It at once celebrates the unique culture that has risen up around The Burn, while simultaneously asking hard questions about the motives, methods and execution chosen by the organization that runs the event, and the participants that attend.
The participants, largely responsible for the success of the event, then and now, are given intense scrutiny. The revered artist and the bro’ish weekender are shown side-by-side, as they are at the actual event. Is Burning Man a magical alternate reality, or an RV theme park?
Bonin is a competent film-maker. The documentary is at once funny, insightful, inspiring, and entertaining. It does a thorough job tracing the origin of the event, from its roots on Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1988, to its cunning-yet-haphazard amalgamation of elements from the underground groups The Cacophony Society, the Suicide Club, and Desert Siteworks. It cast Burning man in a new light for me, opening new vistas of perspective I might not have uncovered after multiple years of attendance.
When you’re seeing this film, you are seeing Burning Man through Bonin’s eyes, and these are the eyes of a man who has been to Burning Man five times, spent many hours contributing to playa art from the Flaming Lotus Girls t the giant Crude Awakening, and had direct access to some of the founders’ progenitors and key influences, including Larry Harvey, John Law, Jerry James, Michael Mikel, and many others intimately connected to the genesis and evolution of the festival. All this access, all this footage, and all this history are distilled into an eminently watchable, even engrossing, documentary that ultimately raises more questions about the event that it answers.
I think good filmmaking makes us think, and Bonin has done that. He pulls no punches, yet is not cruel; he is disillusioned, but not bitter; he is searching, but leaves us, at the end of the film, to quietly ponder our own thoughts, and draw our own conclusions.
Is Burning Man — can it be — more than dust and illusions? Bonin doesn’t answer this in the film, but I suspect he has a private answer for himself.
The lights came up, the crowd cheered, and Bonin got on stage for the Q&A session. Instantly, I could separate the hardcore Burners from the curious bohemian Portlanders who were anxious to get home to bed on a cold Thursday night.
About 3/4ths of the audience evaporated, and those remaining moved closer.
The questions started out simple, even banal, and got more political and pointed as the evening wore on. Will there be a sequel? What’s your next project? Are you going back to Burning Man? What do you think about the Burners Without Borders controversy? How did you get Larry to take off his hat? How does the organization feel about this film?
Bonin’s answers were insightful and revealing, but hardcore Burners have strong opinions, and the audience members began phrasing their questions in the forms of political statements. Bonin sensed this and called for the last question.
Audience member: “Do you think the message of [the] Crude Awakening [art exhibit in 2007] was undermined by the massive amount of fuel it used and C02 it released into the atmosphere?”
Bonin: “I don’t think that’s a question, right? Listen, when you are on the playa, and you drive 30 or 40 miles off away from the city in the direction the wind is blowing, there is trash everywhere.”
If at all possible, catch a screening of this film. See the screening schedule at Dust and Illusions.com.