Burning Man: Voyage in Utopia at the SPIRIT Film Festival Tel Aviv

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Burning Man: Voyage in Utopia at the 2011 SPIRIT Film Festival Tel Aviv

“Sex party in the desert,” “hippies” – these are some of the words that come to mind. Every year, thousands of people drive out to the Black Rock Desert for the week-long Burning Man festival, culminating in the ritual burning of the effigy of a man. What Larry Harvey, Jerry James and a few of their friends began as a spontaneous summer solstice celebration on Baker Beach in 1986, has become a cultural phenomenon that drew 50,000 people in 2011. There must be more to this than sex.

Laurent LeGall’s documentary Burning Man: Voyage in Utopia takes the viewer on the journey to the desert; imbued with warmth, fun, and a wild creativity, it creates the deeply visceral and spiritual experience of Burning Man onscreen. Documenting the 2006 Burning Man event, the film will open the SPIRIT Film Festival on Wednesday, November 2, 2011 at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

Described by co-founder Larry Harvey as “the largest show of interactive art,” LeGall conveys the essence of these words by closely following sculptor David Best as with the help of a team of volunteers he designs and builds a ‘Temple of Honor’ to be burned at the festival. The film tracks the process, interviewing people as they work on the project, then later in the course of the festival, giving the film a very energetic, spontaneous feel. By taking the viewer through the development of a single, colossal project from its planning stages, one enters the desert with Best and his crew, gradually becoming part of a wider phenomenon. One’s understanding of Burning Man grows in rhythm with the festival. Best’s designs for the Temple, created out of recycled materials, vividly demonstrate that these ephemeral scrap creations are works of art.

Yes, some seriously strange and amazing things do happen at Burning Man, and the film gives a wonderful sense of this crazy, alternative city in the desert. For the uninitiated, LeGall provides a key to understanding the attraction of this weird world. In one of the opening scenes, LeGall himself is filmed in one of those ubiquitous monster stores with a shopping cart full of what looks like a lifetime supply of corn chips (in the spirit of ‘radical self reliance’ everyone who comes to Burning Man must bring in all their own supplies). There is a rude awakening in the midst of this carefree junk food shopping spree, as he is suddenly accosted by a stranger saying, “Why don’t you go back to France…I don’t like French people.” Moments later in the film, when sculptor David Best describes Burning Man as “a place of tolerance…way different than what’s on the outside world,” I suspect that even the most skeptical observer will feel the weight of those words, and the desire for “a place of tolerance.”

Fire has always been at the center of ritual practice, the gathering place of a community, a symbol of power, purification, belief and connection; a symbol of human creativity confronting the forces of nature. The extreme vulnerability of people trying to exist in the desert makes the splendor of the artistry involved in this undertaking all the more impressive. LeGall’s film conveys not only the carnivalesque panorama of the bizarre and the magnificent, but the elaborate design, organization, and effort invested in this endeavor. All of it made possible by the free flying creativity of individuals doing their own thing, the inspiring abilities of individuals coming together to work, create and yes – party, as a community. Larry Harvey says in one of the scenes, “There was a day when life and art existed closer together and we’re trying to do that again.” Midnight East can only say: Amen.

Burning Man: Voyage in Utopia (France, USA, 83 min, 2010)
Directed by Laurent Le Gall, in French and English with Hebrew subtitles
SPIRIT Festival screening times: Wednesday, November 2 at 21:45; Thursday, November 3 at 21:30; Friday, November 4 at 20:15; Saturday, November 5 at 18:45. Tickets may be ordered online, or call: 03-6060800, ext. 0.