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Sonoma Valley Film Festival:
Confessions of a Burning Man

Let me start by saying I am not a hippy. I don't wear Birkenstocks, I do not suffer from patchouli stank, and I am not attending rallies for peace, love, or understanding.

With that out of the way, I can say that the documentary Confessions of a Burning Man may be the most effective of its type that I have come across and made me actually understand why people attend Burning Man. A beautiful piece of filmmaking that runs like a dust devil across the playa, it brings the story and importance of Burning Man to light.

The film chronicles four first time Burners and their trip to Black Rock City. They cut across various walks of life: a taxi driver (Michael Winaker), an actress (Samantha Weaver), a Hunter's Point filmmaker (Kevin Epps), and Anna Getty (Yes…one of those Gettys). The documentary starts with them on their way to the fest, and starts slowly. The portion before their arrival gives us a starting point, a level check for each of the participants, but it moves slowly, builds a little too deliberately before arriving at Burning Man.

And then they arrive.

Black Rock Desert is about as photogenic a place as you'll find anywhere in the world. It is seriously difficult to not find a shot that will take your breath away. Confessions does it high justice, capturing the beauty of the location in perfect detail…and the main detail is dust.

Everywhere there is a haze of wind-carried dust that give amazing amounts of texture to the digital video. The crew, while still focusing on the four participants, manages to give grand vistas and amazing beauty shots that actually help to tell the story through simple pictures. The cinematography alone is worth the price of admission.

After the four participants arrive, we see how they take to the festival. Samantha is right at home, seemingly like a veteran from the moment she hits the Playa. Kevin quickly adapts, though he still seems a bit like a fish out of water. Michael is the funny one. He drives a golf cart taxi, dropping people of around the Playa, and does it all with a hilarious Cab Driver mentality. A great exchange with a Burner from Texas on a bicycle had me on the floor for almost five minutes.

The editing may be the strongest area of the film. Precisely cut, with every shot accentuating every point, and playing with the soundtrack as well. I never thought the film lingered too long, never felt it stagnated, but I also didn't feel that it passed anything over too little. The movement and the flow made Confessions as engaging as any documentary I've ever seen.

But aside from the beautiful scenery and the documented participants, the ideals of Burning Man are brought across in a real, layered sense. We're not treated to long dissertations on the matter, but to brief moments with artists, campers, and founder Larry Harvey. These mix in with the images of art being created, the shots of the camps, and the general sense of community that comes out in the interactions of the attendees.

There is the same feeling that permeates the edges of the classic festival doc Woodstock, only this time, the focus isn't the performance, but the meaning, and as the doc goes on, it becomes more and evident that there is grand meaning behind everything going on.

The final segment, covering the Mausoleum, a Temple/ARTitecture piece designed by Petaluma artist David Best, is easily the most compelling. Designed so that Burners could come and write messages to passed loved ones on the 10,000 pieces of wood, the Mausoleum is the spiritual center for the individuals at the festival as much as the Burning Man is the physical and spiritual center for the festival.

People come and leave pieces, including Samantha Weaver's mother's wedding dress, and at the end of the festival, it burns. While the Burning of the Man is a joyous occasion, the burning of the Mausoleum is solemn, nearly silent. It's amazing to watch, and effective, as even the people sitting around me were moved to tears by the event.

As the film wrapped up, I was left with the feeling that I had touched a portion of the event; that so much of the truth of Burning Man had come across that screen that I could say I understood the meaning of the event, the reasons people subjected themselves to a week in the desert for the purposes of arting. Effective filmmaking, no question, but the subject lent itself to such.

All in all, majestic filmmaking, perfect editing, good commentary, and an amazing sense of purpose to a documentary that shouldn't have played so well in the aging Culture Vulture town of Sonoma. I highly recommend it.

Still, I don't think I'll be in Black Rock City for a while…at least not until I've seen Confessions a few more times.

Chris Garcia

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