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Friday, April 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Movie Review
Desert-fest film fails to answer 'Burning' question

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic

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Those unfamiliar with Burning Man, an annual festival of art and free expression held in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, may find Unsu Lee and Paul Barnett's documentary "Confessions of a Burning Man" a tad mystifying. The festival is defined, by various voices in the film, as "the Forest of Arden," "the center of the labyrinth," "the greatest party in all the land," "a unique outpouring of a particular range of subcultures," and even "the '60s done right."

But the film, made in a loose, free-form style that seems to imitate the event it attempts to capture, has trouble getting beyond these easy answers. "What's happening out here is important," somebody tells us, in awed tones. Yes, but why?

Perhaps the filmmakers chose the wrong people to profile. Four first-timers to the festival — an heiress, an actress, a filmmaker and a former cabbie — are our guides to this unclassifiable event. But, except for the cabbie (an irascible fellow who grumbles about dot-commers), they have little to say, wandering around the festival like sunburned babes in the wood, speaking earnestly about spiritual journeys.

Movie review


"Confessions of a Burning Man," a documentary by Unsu Lee and Paul Barnett. 83 minutes. Not rated; suitable for mature audiences (contains nudity). Big Picture.
The film gives tantalizing hints of the magnitude of the event — overhead shots reveal a village created from nothingness, in a vast desert. And late scenes of the ceremonial burning of the festival's mausoleum, an elegantly lacy structure in which participants can place items they wish to forget, have an eerie beauty. But ultimately, "Confessions of a Burning Man" fails to convey what brings thousands of people to this place every year. Guess you had to be there.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or


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