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DocFest 8 at the Roxie has Burning Man Film
by Roger Rose
Whoa Man, What Time is It? The 'Man' goes up in Olivier Bonin's provocative, even critical, new film "Dust and Illusions," showing at DocFest. photo: photo SFDoc Fest
The 8th annual SF DocFest, sponsored by SF IndieFest, returns to the Roxie Theater in San Francisco on October 16. This year's festival features a long list of international films, world premieres, and works by local filmmakers. Among the local films was "Dust and Illusions," a documentary that critically examines the Burning Man festival, which is reviewed in depth below. The festival runs 14 days and will present more than 50 features and shorts.
Opening night is "The Entrepreneur," a fascinating doc on entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin, who first imported Yugo and Subaru to the US. Closing night features "Cropsey," an urban legend of a 13-year-old who disappeared from a Long Island community. Other highlights this year include "The Philosopher Kings," by Patrick Shen, a well received doc about custodians working at major US universities; "Between the Folds," an amazing documentary about origami and its relation to science, by Vanessa Gould; "The Great Contemporary Art Bubble," on the wild world of the New York art hustle; "Off and Running," about an African-American girl becoming a track star; and "Pop Star on Ice," on the rise of gay ice skate star Johnny Weir.
But with the Bay Area home to Burning Man - the hugely popular desert pilgrimage which began here in 1986 with some artists celebrating a solstice on a San Francisco beach - the ticket to ride is "Dust and Illusions," by French-born filmmaker Olivier Bonin. With growing interest and more participants - last month, over 50,000 people come from all corners of the earth - this anarchic estrus of art, sensuality and bacchanalia must be addressed in film.
Amazingly, this is Bonin's first film, which we found out when we sat down with him and doubly astounding that he tackled the Burn, with the inherent problems of dust, distraction and the philosophy of the spectacle.
"I was doing still photography at City and one of my teachers told me that the pictures I was making - that I was trying to tell a story rather than take a still." Bonin learned filmmaking through friends who were already working on projects. "At that time, I was doing microelectronic engineering in the South Bay and I was making a decent salary, so I decided to just buy a Panasonic DVX-100 and see what I can do with it."
Philosopher King, by Patrick Shen is a moving film, despite the subject: custodians working at US universities. photo SFDoc Fest
After getting a camera, all Bonin needed was a subject. A friend who had been doing a video on the Burning Man festival contacted him after the project fell through. "I'll just go there and film and see what happens," reflected Bonin on his interest in the Black Rock, Nevada festival site. While he cut his documentarian teeth on the DVX-100, he began amassing interviews with Burners old and young - even scoring several interviews with founder, Larry Harvey and 20 other key figures from the event's 30 plus-year history.
Bonin's film supplies a historical perspective on how the Burning Man event became associated with a counter-cultural movement in America. Perhaps more importantly, the film looks critically at how the meaning of the festival has changed over 20 years, from a existential form of expressionism to a more commodified ritual of indulgence.
Some critique is necessary to make sense of this powerful cultural event. It divides "the Bay Area media and arts community... into three: those bereft because their buddies all left for Burning Man... those who wouldn't go if you paid them, and the majority - those going to Burning Man!" according to CineSource's "B Roll" "What Does Burning Man Mean?" And it pushes the envelope of gender relations, sculpture, gift economy and alt-spirituality.
Laurent Le Gall, another Frenchman and friend of CineSource, made the BM doc, "Journey to Utopia." (What's with these French observers - the de Tocqueville thing?) Le Gall is gearing up for his second BM feature with local indie master Rob Nilsson. They just returned from "scouting" and submitting applications to authorities (BM has strict rules about filmmaking) to make the first feature film approved of by Black Rock Arts.
"Dust and Illusions" is just one of 11 films by Bay area artists, and one of more than 50 films featured in the DocFest from around the world. Other films of interest include "Mine," a doc about the lost pets of Hurricane Katrina by Geralyn Pezanoski; "Trimpin: The Sound of Invention" by Peter Esmonde, about a Swiss musician who worked with unusual instruments and did a show with the Kronos Quartet; "Only When I Dance" by Beadie Finzi, the tale of Brazilian dance hopefuls flying to NYC; "Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero" by Lee Demarbre, about one of the stars of Mexican wresting; the highly acclaimed "Apology of an Economic Hitman," in which former World Bank functionary John Perkins confesses his sins; "Marina of the Zabbaleen" by Engi Wassef, about Coptic Christians in Egypt becoming the trash specialists for the entire country; "The Earth Is Young" by Michael Gitlin, about "Young Earth creationists;" and completing the coverage of the squares: "What's the Matter With Kansas?" on how midwestern Republicans vote against their interests by Joe Winston and Laura Cohen.
Arguably the most California offering is "Homegrown," not the sorely-needed expose on the multibillion dollar Mendicino business, but even more ecologically critical, the story of a Pasadena family growing three tons of organic food a year in their backyard (directed by Robert McFalls).
All films are at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco from October 16 - 29, with an Opening Night Party at ArtZone at 461 Valencia, and a Roller Disco Costume Party at CellSpace, 2050 Bryant in SF on Friday, October 23. Festival passes, including all films and two special events, are $180. For info, go to
or call (800) 838-3006.
Posted on Oct 01, 2009 - 04:16 PM