Burning questions

steve@sfbg.com

A documentary called Spark: A Burning Man Story is arriving on the big screen, with dreams of wide distribution, at a pivotal moment for the San Francisco-based corporation that has transformed the annual desert festival into a valuable global brand supported by a growing web of interconnected burner collectives around the world.

Is that a coincidence, or is this interesting and visually spectacular (if slightly hagiographic) film at least partially intended to shore up popular support for the leadership of Burning Man as the founders cash out of Black Rock City LLC and supposedly begin to transfer more control to a new nonprofit entity?

Filmed during last year’s ticket fiasco — in which high demand and a flawed lottery system created temporary scarcity that left many essential veteran burners without tickets during the busy preparation season — both the filmmakers and leaders of Burning Man say they needed to trust one another.

After all, technology-entrepreneur-turned-director Steve Brown was given extensive, exclusive access to the sometimes difficult and painful internal discussions about how to deal with that crisis. And if he was looking to make a film about the flawed and dysfunctional leadership of the event — ala Olivier Bonin’s Dust & Illusions — he certainly had plenty of footage to make that storyline work.

But that wasn’t going to happen, not this time — for a few reasons. One, Brown is a Burning Man true believer and relative newbie who took its leaders at face value and didn’t want to delve into the details or criticisms of how the event is managed or who will chart its future. As he told us, that just wasn’t the story he wanted to tell.

“We got trusted by the founders of Burning Man to do this story,” he told us. “They were in the process of going into a nonprofit and they wanted to get their message out into the world.”

Two, Black Rock City LLC needed to sign off on the film for it to be distributed, given that the corporation controls the use of images from the event. “Could Burning Man have prevented us from distributing this film? Yeah, they probably could have,” Brown told us. And during my own experience writing and promoting a book about Burning Man, I learned that its leaders resent criticism and can make or break efforts to promote books or movies to the larger burner community.

Finally, as is increasingly the case with many documentary films, the filmmakers and their subjects are essentially in a partnership. Brown and the LLC’s leaders reluctantly admitted to us that there is a financial arrangement between the two entities and that the LLC will receive revenues from the film, although they wouldn’t discuss details with us.

Chris Weitz, an executive producer on the film, is also on the board of directors of the new nonprofit, The Burning Man Project, along with his wife, Mercedes Martinez. Both were personally appointed by the six members of the LLC’s board to help guide Burning Man into a new era.

Brown insists that these relationships had no influence on the film and that the LLC neither requested nor received any editorial changes. “I made it clear to them that I’m only going to do a film that is completely independent,” Brown said.

And his co-director, Jessie Deeter, is a respected journalist and veteran documentary filmmaker whose strong reputation lured estranged Burning Man co-founder John Law to participate in the film, offering the only real questioning of the event’s leadership (although it focused on the decisions in the late 1990s to continue growing the event, not on its more recent stewardship and questions of relinquishing some control to the larger community).

“I’m fair and I’m really proud of my reputation as a journalist,” Deeter told us, noting how important she thought it was to have Law’s contrarian voice in the film.

Still, both Deeter and Brown are also clear that they believe in the leadership of the event. “I found their intentions to be honorable and positive as they deal with difficult-to-solve problems,” Brown said, while Deeter later told us, “I believe in their intentions.”

More cynical burner veterans may have a few eye-rolling moments with this film and the portrayals of its selfless leadership. While the discussions of the ticket fiasco raised challenging issues within the LLC, its critics came off as angry and unreasonable, as if the new ticket lottery had nothing to do with the temporary, artificial ticket scarcity (which was alleviated by summer’s end and didn’t occur this year under a new and improved distribution system).

And when the film ends by claiming “the organization is transitioning into a nonprofit to ‘gift’ the event back to the community,” it seems to drift from overly sympathetic into downright deceptive, leaving viewers with the impression that the six board members are selflessly relinquishing the tight control they exercise over the event and the culture it has spawned.

Yet our interview with the LLC leadership shows that just isn’t true. If anything, the public portrayals that founder Larry Harvey made two years ago about how this transition would go have been quietly modified to leave these six people in control of Burning Man for the foreseeable future.

CHANGING FOCUS

As altruistic as Spark makes Burning Man’s transition to nonprofit status sound, Harvey made it clear during the April 1, 2011 speech when he announced it that it was driven by internal divisions that almost tore the LLC board apart, largely over how much money departing board members were entitled to.

The corporation’s bylaws capped each board member’s equity at $20,000, a figure Harvey scoffed at as ridiculously low, saying the six board members would decide on larger payouts as part of the transition and they have refused to disclose how much (Sources in the LLC tell me the payouts have already begun. Incidentally, author Katherine Chen claimed in her book Enabling Creative Chaos that the $20,000 cap was set to quell community concerns about the board accumulating equity from everyone else’s efforts, but Harvey now denies that account).

In that speech, Harvey also said the plan was to turn over operation of the Burning Man event to the nonprofit after three years, and then three years later to transfer control over the Burning Man brand and trademarks and to dissolve the LLC (see “The future of Burning Man,” 8/2/11).

Board member Marian Goodell assured us at the time that the LLC would be doing extensive outreach to gather input on what the future leadership of the event and culture should look like: “We’re going to have a conversation with the community.”

But with just a year to go until the event was scheduled to be turned over to the nonprofit board, there has been no substantive transfer, the details of what the leadership structure will look like are murky — and the six board members of Black Rock LLC still deem themselves indispensable leaders of the event and culture.

The filmmakers say that the transition to the nonprofit was one of the things that drew them to the project, but the ticket fiasco came to steal their focus, mostly because the nonprofit narrative was simply too complex and confusing to easily convey on film.

Deeter said they decided to close the film with Law and his questions of whether the event should have been allowed to grow so large. “We insisted on having John Law at the end to counterbalance that idea” of who would be leading the event.

As she said of the transition to a nonprofit: “You know that transition is a really, really complicated thing.”

TRANSITION TIME

Yes, and it’s something that seems to be made even more complicated by Harvey and Goodell, who offered dizzying answers to our questions about how the event and culture will be led going forward. All we can tell at this point is that it’s still a work in progress.

“We’re pretty much on schedule,” Harvey told me, noting that he still hopes to transfer ownership of the event over to the nonprofit next year. “The nonprofit is going well, and then we have to work out the terms of the relationship between the event and the nonprofit. We want the event to be protected from undue meddling and we want it to be a good fit.”

From our conversations, it appears that a new governance structure seems synonymous with the “meddling” they want to avoid.

“We want to make sure the event production has autonomy, so it can water the roads without board members deciding which roads and the number of tickets and how many volunteers,” Goodell said. “We did look at basically plopping the entire thing into the nonprofit, but if you look at what we’re trying to do out in the world, we don’t have any interest in becoming a big, large government agency.”

It was an analogy they returned to a few times: equating a new governance structure with bureaucratic tyranny. They rejected the notion that the new nonprofit would have “control” over the event, even though they want it to have “ownership” of the event.

“You just said the control of the event would be turned over to the nonprofit,” Goodell said.

“No, the ownership,” Harvey added.

“Yeah, there’s a difference,” Goodell said.

That difference seems to involve whether the six current board members would be giving up their control — which she said they are not.

“All six of us plan to stay around. We’re not going off to China to buy a little house along the Mekong River,” Goodell said.

“We want to make sure the event production company has sufficient autonomy, they can function with creating freedom and do what it does best, which is producing the Burning Man event, without being unduly interfered with by the nonprofit organization,” Harvey said.

“That’s why you heard it one way initially, and you’re hearing it slightly differently now, and it could go back again,” Goodell said. “We don’t think it’s sensible, either philosophically or fiscally, to essentially strip away all these entities and take all these employees and plop them in the middle of The Burning Man Project.”

In other words, Black Rock LLC and its six members will apparently still produce the event — and it’s not clear what, exactly, the nonprofit will do.

“We are giving up LLC-based ownership control, we are not giving up the steerage of the culture,” Goodell said. “That we’re not giving up. We’re more necessary now than ever.”

PLAYA AS BACKDROP

There are burners who see things in much simpler terms. Chicken John Rinaldi, the longtime burner and thorn in the LLC’s side, was interviewed for Spark but not included in the film. [CLARIFICATION: Deeter and Rinaldi had one phone conversation “on background,” she says, and both deny that he was “interviewed,” as Deeter had told us]. Rinaldi, Law, and others have repeatedly questioned why the LLC doesn’t create a more inclusive and community-based leadership structure, something that would seem appropriate for an event whose value is derived almost entirely by the volunteer efforts of burners, who acquire no equity in the event even after years of work.

But these aren’t the issues that Spark explores. In following both the leaders of the LLC and storylines involving two different art projects and a theme camp, the filmmakers say the film isn’t really about Burning Man at all, but what it brings out in people.

“This film is about ordinary people following extraordinary dreams,” Brown said at a press screening at the Roxie last month. “Burning Man is the context, but it’s not necessarily what it’s about.”

When I asked Brown about whether he paid the LLC for access and the right to use footage they filmed on the playa — something I know it has demanded of other film and photo projects — Brown paused for almost a full minute before admitting he did.

“We saw it as location fees. We’re making an investment, they’re making an investment,” he said, refusing to provide details of the agreement. “The arrangement we had with Burning Man is similar to the arrangements anyone else has had out there.”

Goodell said the LLC’s standard agreement calls for all filmmakers to either pay a set site fee or a percentage of the profits. “It’s standard in all of the agreements to pay a site fee,” Goodell said, noting that the LLC recently charged Vogue Magazine $150,000 to do a photo shoot during the event.

But the issue of paying subjects is a controversial one in the documentary film world, according to a couple of veteran Bay Area documentary filmmakers we interviewed (one spoke only on background). For documentaries that present themselves as journalism, documentary filmmaker Chris Metzler told us, “The rule is, you don’t pay a subject because it will corrupt the process and authenticity you’re trying to capture.”

That rule has become more of a guideline in recent years, particularly as technological advances have made it easier to become a documentary filmmaker. And even the guideline is a little squishy when it comes to interviewing consultants or powerful people who expect to be compensated for their time, or with wanting to ensure people of limited means can take part in a film’s promotion.

Metzler also said that a financial arrangement can influence a film less than an ideological or cultural affinity. That can be particularly strong in the Burning Man world, as Weitz told us, conceding that most art done on Burning Man ends up being at least a little hagiographic: “I think it’s inevitable whenever anyone writes about or makes a film about Burning Man, because we love it.”

Metzler said he simply doesn’t pay sources, but he also said the determining factor should be, “Does it change what you have access to and how people behave?”

TWO VIEWS

There are at least a couple ways for burner true believers to look at the event, its culture, and its leadership. One is to see Burning Man as a unique and precious gift that has been bestowed on its attendees by Harvey, its wise and selfless founder, and the leadership team he assembled, which he formalized as an LLC in 1997.

That seems to be the dominant viewpoint, based on reactions that I’ve received to past critical coverage (and which I expect to hear again in reaction to this article), and it is the viewpoint of the makers of this film. “They’ve dedicated their lives to creating this platform that allows people to go out and create art,” Brown said.

Another point-of-view is to see Burning Man as the collective, collaborative effort that it claims to be, a DIY experiment conducted by the voluntary efforts of the tens of thousands of people who create the art and culture of Black Rock City from scratch, year after year.

Yes, we should appreciate Harvey and the leaders of the event, and they should get reasonable retirement packages for their years of effort. But they’ve also had some of the coolest jobs in town for a long time, and they now freely travel the world as sort of countercultural gurus, not really working any harder than most San Franciscans.

Should the gratitude we feel toward them really be so much greater than the gratitude they feel toward us, the people who hold fundraisers and make sacrifices and toil for months on end for no compensation to give Burning Man its artistic, cultural, and financial value?

In that sense, it’s the community that has gifted Burning Man to the people who run it. So, as Spark claims, is the LLC really planning to gift it back? We’ll see. As Weitz told me when we discussed that idea and whether it’s really true, “I think everyone wants to live up to that phrase.”

Brown also told us that final phrase might have been a little wishful thinking, or perhaps a prompt for burners: “I wrote that card for the end of the film expressing the intention we heard from the Burning Man founders, but I also wrote it to show that it is a process that is just beginning, and we do not yet know the outcome. My bet is that the community will hold them to it.”

Guardian City Editor Steven T. Jones is the author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture (2011, CCC Publishing).