The world premiere of the International Wood Culture Society’s latest Black Rock City documentary, “Mirage,” takes place Saturday, October 24, 8pm PDT. Grab your tickets on Kindling!
Enjoy this preview piece from the film’s executive producer and multi-year Burner, Mona Wu.
From “Reborn to the Ashes” to “Mirage”
by Mona Wu
The Beginning — Wood and Fire
I still remember the day back in 2015, when one of my colleagues mentioned Burning Man to me. Like everyone else would have, I Googled just to learn what it was all about… and that was the moment we stumbled upon this incredible journey. We all know Burning Man is famous for its large scale art pieces, LED and neon nights and the amazing fire shows. However, the question that kept popping up in my head was: why burn the wood?
Here’s a little background on our organization: International Wood Culture Society (IWCS) is a non-profit organization established in 2007 to carry out the research, education and promotion of wood culture; our motto ‘Wood is Good.’ The Society established World Wood Day (WWD) on March 21st each year to globally raise public awareness of wood as an eco-friendly renewable biomaterial, and to encourage sustainable wood usage.
The questions we’ve been asked a lot when introducing ourselves during each Burn are: “Why have you chosen to cover Burning Man?” And, “Aren’t they burning a lot of wood?”
This is where the dialogue begins between Burning Man and us. A conversation with one common center, not sides, is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it toward something that has never been created before. To listen respectfully to others, cultivate and speak our own voice and suspend our opinions about others brings out the capacity that exists at the very center of ourselves — the capacity to see things from a brand new perspective. With this gentle cultural approach, we’ve created a series of Burning Man documentaries, including five documentaries that explore different topics.
The Journey — On and Off Playa
If you recall how challenging it is to attend your first Burn, double the difficulty of it (or maybe triple, because that’s how hard it is to bring a film crew on board!). Apart from struggling to get everyone’s ticket, you need to have your film proposal approved by the Burning Man Media Mecca team to get permission to shoot. I’ll skip over the details of what’s needed to protect equipment from dust storms, and the challenge of finding your interviewee at the right place and right time. Our first film “Reborn from the Ashes” was intended to film the building process of an art piece, which ultimately didn’t get accepted by the Artery. When I thought we’d lost the main narrative of the whole story, the Media Mecca team was kind enough to introduce us to Dave X, the Fire Arts Safety Team Manager. He showed up in front of the cameras with a T-shirt written “ F*ck! It’s hot” in Chinese characters, and patiently explained his complicated Burn schedule to us. I hope I don’t tarnish his cool image here, but Dave is one of the kindest persons I’ve encountered. After our first interview, even though he was still suspicious why an organization that works with wood kept following him to every Burn and most of his meetings, Dave introduced us to different artists that fit our theme, recommended we talk to Temple designer David Best, and suggested we have a conversation with Crimson Rose. Without his help and guidance, we couldn’t have produced “Reborn from the Ashes.” I secretly called him our fairy godfather on playa — one not with a magic wand, but an explosive torch.
Our first Burn also magically led us to collaborate on a project with David Best in Nepal. David and his volunteer crew were invited to create a community stupa in honor of the people of Nepal who suffered greatly from the 2015 earthquakes. The construction site is located in Bungamati, a well-known traditional woodcarving village that had more than 70% of its buildings damaged in the earthquakes.
The stupa is composed of thousands of pieces of wood representing earthquake victims. It’s surreal to see David show up with his signature white shirt in a Nepali tea house each morning… no dust! Burning Man Founder Larry Harvey also joined the crew later on, and we took the opportunity to have a short talk with him. Looking back, it was a very special conversation, and also brought us back for another film: “Building the Man.”
Working during the Burn is a unique experience. With an unscripted film and limited timeframe, unpredictable setbacks always arise. Here are just a few real-life examples we experienced: getting a flat bike tire on our way to an important meeting; a parade marching through an interview; and a dust storm keeping us from arriving at our meeting point.
In 2016, we documented obstacles the Man Base crew faced when the Man would not turn as planned. I was anxious about how the documentary might turn out, and Stuart Mangrum reassured me that most of the Da Vinci works would never succeed (the event theme that year was “Da Vinci’s Workshop,”). He reminded us that Burning Man is about the experience, and setbacks are a part of that. One year I underestimated food for a group of five adults, and we luckily survived by the free hotdog given each day at 15:00 across the road. Last Burn, the electricity system in our RV suddenly shut off on the second day of our arrival; not only did we have no air conditioning, we were not able to charge our camera batteries. After numerous tries, we were saved by our talented neighbors. When you have become accustomed to the role of an observer and see actions through a camera lens most of the time, it’s hard to define yourself as a “participant.” I’ve found the term “Burners” feels unfitting to a film crew, who are documenting others most of the time. However, it’s through those unplanned setbacks that we had the opportunity to interact with people who weren’t on our “selected list,” and let us know that we were, indeed, part of the event.
These unexpected engagements got me to ask myself: Have I offered something in return to this community and to the people who provide their ongoing advice, support and patience for our filming projects? Can I define myself as a good citizen of Black Rock City? With these questions in mind and the ideas from our director, Neo Weng, “Mirage” was born. A story about our temporary home, and about us as its citizens.
The Final Chapter — Mirage
In our newest film “Mirage,” we’ve selected a few crucial elements that make Black Rock City a special place: art, fire, and people. The temporary nature of this city provides opportunities for citizens to do new experiments, to expand under the realm of the Ten Principles.This is the story about how Black Rock City was built from the dust into a vivid urban place for 70,000 people.
The placements of camps, streets you’ve walked, the art in the open playa, and the Burns you’ve seen are all designed with careful intention and maintained with effort. Our aim with “Mirage” is to uncover different layers of Black Rock City and the culture that lies within it. It’s not always the utopia some imagine — like every place, it has its own unique challenges. But through many behind-the-scenes actions in the film, you will discover that a lot of us actually share the same values. We tell the story of the unnamed heroes who dedicate themselves to the vision of Black Rock City they believe in, and at the same time, provide a glimpse of where our community might head in the future.
On Burn Night, it was rather quiet for me since we didn’t need as much footage from the Burn, and no interviews were scheduled that day. After some intense work days, I didn’t head off to the playa watch the Man Burn, but instead climbed to the top of our RV and watched the celebration from far away. While the crowd cheered, art cars moved together with loud music and fireworks lit up the sky. It certainly looks like a big party, I thought. And then Larry Harvey’s words suddenly crossed my mind: “It’s not just a party in the desert, really, it’s more than that.”
Oh yes. It’s indeed more than that. Thank you, Larry. I took another look at this special “home” that is going to vanish within 48 hours, and smiled.
Now you may ask: “Where is the wood?“
And I’d answer: “Where there’s fire, there’s wood.”
We set out to make a film about Burning Man and Black Rock City’s wood usage, and discovered one of the most authentic and unique wood cultures that started in 1986, on a beach in San Francisco with a wooden effigy. And the story goes on…
See you on Oct. 24 for the Mirage Premiere!