Burning Man, the internationally known festival in which thousands of people create a temporary community in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, began as an impromptu performance art event and family picnic on a San Francisco beach.
The annual festival’s history is uncovered in the documentary “Dust and Illusions.”
“It’s the story of the rise and fall of an ideal,” said Bonin of San Francisco. “There were a few people who were kind of marginal and wanted to do something different and wanted to get outside of the mainstream. They were trying to invent a new community, something with new values, and now it’s been caught up into the commercialization of an event.”
Paris-born Bonin first encountered the festival in 2003. “I really liked the history that was behind the event,” he said. “I wanted to explore that and do something deeper than anybody had done before.”
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Bonin’s film has received critical praise. “I think this is the best film about Burning Man that’s ever been made,” Steve Jones wrote in a review for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, adding that the film “revives questions about whether the rapidly growing event has missed an opportunity to transform itself from the best party on the planet into an important and enduring sociopolitical movement.”
It’s appropriate that the festival was part of what inspired Bonin to become a filmmaker.
“For a long time, I’d wanted to do something artistic, and I’d been doing photography for about 10 years, and I was not completely satisfied,” he said. “In 2003, a friend was making a film, and I followed the process and got really interested.
“It was the same year I discovered Burning Man, and I decided I wanted to make a film about it. It seemed like a great place to do a film.”
The film took Bonin five years to complete. “I started to do a lot of research trying to connect the dots and asking everybody I would meet what they knew about the event,” he said.
Digging deeply into the history of the 23-year-old festival, he found some surprises.
“I heard a lot of people telling me how it’s going to change the world,” he said. “People were telling me how Burning Man is so welcoming, so embracing of everybody’s differences.
“But I could see that there were regular politics there, like there are everywhere else. It was not as pure as people were telling me.”