Why We Approved a Fictional Film Shoot in Black Rock City (and Won’t Do It Again)

Burning Man Project takes media projects seriously. Anyone wanting to do something that involves images from Black Rock City has to go through a lengthy process of application, careful consideration, and approval. We want to make sure people demonstrate an understanding of how to act respectfully with a camera in our city.

It’s been this way for a long time, and through this process we have developed guidelines for vetting Black Rock City Media Project proposals. Our guidelines ensure that we stick to our nonprofit mission of disseminating Burning Man’s culture in ways that line up with our Principles. Accordingly, we don’t approve commercials or fashion shoots because using Burning Man to sell a product or promote a brand conflicts with our principle of Decommodification. We don’t approve music videos because we don’t want to see BRC used as a backdrop. We don’t approve fictional narratives because we feel that stories from Burning Man should be about real people existing in a real place expressing their personal experiences and thoughts about Burning Man.

To give an idea of what this means in numbers, in 2017, more than 280 projects applied and nearly 100 were not approved. We’re fairly judicious about this process.

At the same time, we are always interested in exploring different kinds of Burning Man storytelling, and sometimes we receive compelling and intriguing proposals that challenge our assumptions and make us question, “Does this particular policy hold up?”

Experimenting With Fiction

In 2015, we found ourselves reviewing a pair of proposals that asked us to reconsider the issue of fictional narratives taking place within the real Black Rock City.

The first was a 10-minute short film by Josh Yeo called Deep Playa Sunrise. The story is ostensibly about a Burner trying to find a battery for his hearing aid, but the journey takes the viewer through the more personal, intimate and (by necessity) quieter sides of our dusty city. The film was released in August 2016. The original posting racked up about 40k views, and many people applauded the artful exploration into this type of storytelling.

The other project from that year is called The Girl from the Song. It was pitched to us as an independent film school project as a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Long story short: guy falls in love with girl, guy loses girl, guy tries to get girl back, and (SPOILER ALERT) guy ends up alone. It’s a classic tragedy. You know, Greek.

Initially, we declined the application. After all, we don’t allow fictional films to be shot in BRC.

Then, the team of young film students from Spain visited our office. They told us about how they had become Burners, about how their experiences in Black Rock City had changed their lives, and about how this project, their first full-length film, was the gift they wanted to offer to the Burning Man community. They were ambitious, creative, passionate, and determined.

And if Burning Man is anything, it is a place for big, crazy, seemingly impossible ideas.

At this point we asked ourselves a series of questions: If fiction film is the chosen art form of members of the Burning Man community, are they permitted to create their work alongside all the other art in Black Rock City? Does ensuring that someone does not spend their time on playa as a character in some future film help preserve an integral sense of Immediacy for them and the people they interact with? If someone is going to tell a story about a character going to Burning Man, should that character actually be in Black Rock City and not some faux soundstage version of it? If everyone in the film gives consent, is it the Burning Man organization’s responsibility to prevent it from being made?

So, as an experiment, we decided to give them permission to shoot their student project.

The Reality of the Film

By most technical measures, the filmmakers did what any media project in BRC is supposed to do. They checked all their gear in at Media Mecca. They coordinated with members of the Gate and Temple for scenes they wanted to film there. They submitted signed release forms from Burners and the makers of Mutant Vehicles and art pieces featured in the film. They even got the Deathguild crowd to sign off on a scene shot in the Thunderdome. It was kind of impressive.

But seeing the film (which is now getting increased visibility and making the rounds in European film festivals) — seeing a fictional character in the real Black Rock City — though kind of intriguing, also felt really weird. Basically, we don’t believe the film reflects the best of our culture, though by that measure there is a lot of video content on the web that wouldn’t pass the test. We gave this project a shot because we generally believe in supporting student projects as a form of self-expression and as an opportunity for growth and learning. As with most Burning Man experiments, we learned a lot from the experience.

For one, it has confirmed our belief that Black Rock City just isn’t an appropriate place to shoot fiction films. Moving forward, no narrative films will be allowed to be shot in Black Rock City. It just doesn’t feel right to have Black Rock City portrayed as a backdrop. And while this experiment has affirmed some of our beliefs and strengthened our media process for the future, it probably won’t even make it onto the long list of things that have ruined Burning Man.


Top photo: The Black Rock Bijou by Sam Gipson, Rocky Gipson, Matthew Pearson, Veronica Mendoza, Ashton Christiano, Fabio Mascio and David Neuman, 2012 (Photo by Oliver Fluck)

About the author: Burning Man

Burning Man

The official voice of the Burning Man organization, managed by Burning Man's Communications Team.

8 Comments on “Why We Approved a Fictional Film Shoot in Black Rock City (and Won’t Do It Again)

  • The Hustler says:

    Adding a layer of scrutiny and peer review adds validity to the notion that Black Rock City doesn’t lens itself well to fiction — at least in this context. I imagine one could use the producers/director (whomever) following all of the guidelines to Burning Man specs a simple form of a control in the experiment. Following a loose theme of scientific method, I’m curious if, in fact, one could make a fictional narrative successfully in Black Rock City. While I still lean heavily toward no, my curiosity is a bit piqued.
    So Deep Playa Sunrise didn’t work out. Failures are learning opportunities, which makes a failure in the non-science world a success elsewhere (OK, not exactly; just go with it here).
    On the other hand, I’m happy that the communications team are simultaneously tightening down on media projects while also allowing creativity and experimentation in how Black Rock City is portrayed.

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  • anon says:

    how about encouraging people NOT to take photos, and to avoid taking any photos in areas clearly marked a no photography zone? too many people disrespect the signs and people curtail their actions and behavior for fear of being photographed (and not just stopping going topless).

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  • Towhead says:

    While I agree the reasoning in this post is vague. Could you be more specific about why it confirmed your belief that fiction films are not appropriate for BRC?

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  • Ladyhouse says:

    Yes, the film set a really poor example of radical self reliance – showing up at the gate with no ticket and with nothing to be prepared for the extreme environment. I’m sure the event doesn’t need more of that. :-)

    I was really curious how the filmmakers got permission to film.

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  • Kraig says:

    And now it’s on Netflix. Prepare for an influx of clueless masses who saw a film that is fiction.

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  • Buena Chica says:

    I just saw the film in Paris at l’Entrepot with the film crew and a bunch of Burners… probably 2/3 of the audience had been to Playa. And you know what we were talking about at the end of the film? OUR OWN EXPERiENCES, our own memories, the art featured on the film…… and even some of our sordid Playa love affairs!! Once we get to the details of the film, how they covered SOME of the Principles, how they fail to do this or that, yeah, like ANY OTHER Camp or Playa Project, things could be improved/reshot/changed/rescripted but overall I am pleased with their final production. ((Let’s face it, there are a A HECK of A LOT of incredibly offensive little YouTube video done about Playa that just makes our Burning Man community look so darn bad and attracts some questionable people!)) The creators of the film actually feel bad that Headquarters is not satisfied with their final project. They truly love Playa! And they followed through with their long project. Guess they should be proud that they are THE ONLY fictional film ever to be done on Playa. Now for a little funky information: “Jo” , the main actress, has gone back to Playa and even volunteers with one of the backbone groups on Playa! )'(

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    • Eduardo Schmidt says:

      I’m a 5 time burner.
      I enjoyed the movie.
      It took me back to the playa.
      I recognized some of the art.
      Their effort to portray both positive and negative aspects of the experience made it interesting.

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  • steve says:

    Fictional film will never portray reality well. Just as some people who are actually attending the Burn don’t fully fall into the culture. The main problem with the film was a weak story – I was on the playa that year and the film brought back great memories, I was on Pilot Fish, I was at the temple, I cringed when they rolled around in the man-made mud, (Yet in my camp plenty of people pissed in corners ). It was ambitious for sure and I, for one, don’t the door should be closed. I’m sure their are many “cities” who don’t like the way they were portrayed in a particular film or series. It’s just a movie.

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