Its symbol is a 50-foot-tall wood-and-neon statue of a man that meets a fiery end. It's been the subject of much speculation, dozens of sensationalist reports on the nightly news and more than a few smirks from the general public.
But the weeklong Burning Man festival, which runs through tomorrow in its remote high Nevada desert preserve, has rarely tempted serious filmmakers to chronicle its inner workings and outward spectacle.
Until now. Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock (released last month on DVD) presents in great depth and with music-video gloss, the history, participants and singular atmosphere of this cultish annual gathering of bohemian artists, seekers, hacky-sackers and tent-dwelling science geeks.
Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock marks the culmination of four years of exhaustive work by two Texas filmmakers, both motivated to craft a documentary that would offer a dispassionate set of answers to the numerous questions swirling around Burning Man.
"I wanted to make the film," offers Burning Man producer Michael S. Wilson, "because most of the other films on Burning Man are done by 'burners' for 'burners.' Ours was to be the film for the other 99.9 percent of the population."
The documentary couldn't have been better timed, released only weeks before the festival's 20th anniversary. In the mid-'80s, Burning Man was more like a burning boy, involving only the event's founder and executive director, Larry Harvey, who one afternoon gathered at San Francisco's Baker Beach with family and a few friends to swap stories - capping off the experience by setting an 8-foot effigy on fire.
By 1990, the growing Burning Man masses left the West Coast for Black Rock Playa, a sprawling expanse of wind-burned Nevada desert, from which a 4-square-mile space has been carved for the festival. The desolate area this year accommodates between 35,000 and 40,000 staffers, volunteers, artists and general public, making it - temporarily, at least - the fifth-largest city in Nevada.
Producer Wilson, 35, was familiar with Burning Man's savagely beautiful desert home, having attended two past festivals. Still, he was left with many unanswered questions about the festival's history and logistics.
In late 2001, Wilson began a nine-month negotiation with the Burning Man organizers, who rarely granted videotaping permission, to shoot footage of the 2002 event. Around the same time he got the green light, he met television-news veteran Damon Brown and persuaded him to direct the documentary.
"I actually wasn't going to shoot a whole lot on that trip, as I thought we would just circulate and meet with all the organizers," recalls Wilson. But by the time he and Brown returned from Burning Man 2002, they had accumulated more than 30 hours of raw footage.
"Burning Man is such a vast undertaking," says Brown, 37. "There is much more going on behind the scenes than the hippie-town kind of thing that the papers portray."
In order to inject their film (in which Wilson invested $300,000) with the desired inside-story verisimilitude, Wilson persuaded the highly insular Burning Man hierarchy to allow him unfettered access to the extensive meetings that laid the groundwork for its 2003 event.
"Yeah, we had a lot of talks around a campfire in the desert to really get to know them before they would begin comprehensive shooting," recalls founder Larry Harvey. "We eventually developed an intuitive sense of trust about them."
Filmed over 20 months, and distilled from 250 hours of raw footage, the 105-minute documentary tells the Burning Man story from multiple vantage points: inside the organizational meetings, with the army of logistics helpers, tagging along primarily with three of the festival's artists.
"It really turned into guerrilla filmmaking," recalls Brown. "It was such a 360-degree experience, with everything coming at me from all directions and all, on that unique surface-of-the-moon landscape."
After repeated viewings, Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock seems to have passed the ultimate sniff test from the festival's founding father.
"What was very refreshing about it was that they made people working on a project look interesting," says Harvey. "I also liked their satirizing the stereotype: Take the idea that Burning Man must be this hippie, orgy, drug-fest on parade and totally disarm it. Then they just document its reality."