The entire community exists as a combination of a gifting economy and basic self reliance, nothing is bought or sold. Bring what you need and some to share. There are no rules governing one's behavior or dress. It is life at the other end of the spectrum. Almost 50,000 people come together and build a temporary city in the desert, and then they burn it all down and leave the desert even cleaner than when they found it.
And this is the place where young but already noteworthy documentary filmmaker Julie Pifher decided to ask "the Question" for her new documentary, Burning Man and the Meaning of Life, making its world theatrical premier December 1 at Movies of Delray.
"I had this idea six years ago. I was in film school at the time and learning about the meaning of life in a philosophy class and thinking about that in terms of my own life. And then I got to talking with a friend of mine, and we were saying wouldn't this be cool to go to this thing, I wonder what it's like, it must be so cool. And then I thought, that would be such a cool thing to ask these people, who are really out there, really open-minded, really just kind of different from your everyday -- or who are in a different environment than your everyday -- what they think the meaning of life is."
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Pifher had never been to Burning Man before she went to film her documentary. In addition to a traditional crew armed with two cameras conducting interviews, they set up a special booth designed to capture the Burners at their most unguarded and honest.
"We built this big photo booth, soundproof booth, in the middle of the desert, and it had a motion sensored camera, so every time someone came into the booth, it recorded them. There were questions on the walls, just some things to point them in the right direction. We had hundreds of people throughout the week come into that booth and be really honest. In one clip, somebody is crying; in another, people are just laughing and having a good time. Somebody had sex in our booth; some people definitely did drugs in the booth."
The wild costumes and uninhibited behavior in the trailer are enough to reaffirm beliefs that Burning Man is nothing more than a big hippie party in the desert. But Pifher had an instinct that people who voluntarily trek into the middle of the desert to commune might have a perspective worth exploring, and her hunch was right.
"I saw this festival as a microcosm of life; it's born anew each year, and you live it, and then they burn it down, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and then they rebuild it next year. So in that week, you can almost sort of experience a lifetime. I think that a lot of people go there looking for transformative change. They're looking for an escape from their life because modern-day life is such a grind, and that's not really natural. We're put in this box and people go there to step outside that box and experience something different."
So, what -- according to the free love, communal living Burners -- is the meaning of life? What else?
"Love. I think that the strongest answers, the most common answer,
the one we received the most, and the most succinct is love. It's all
just kind of part of living, and it is that part of life that keeps us
going. It definitely tested my answer. Part of love is loving yourself and loving others, and so for me, this documentary really tested my skills as an artist and as a human being. Dream big, do big things, 'cause that's love, it's all love, and it gives you purpose."
South Florida was chosen for the documentary's theatrical premiere because the Florida Burners -- a group called Burnt Orange -- stood out to Pifher as some of the most passionate and outgoing. They will certainly be at the premiere hosting a silent auction to benefit Burners Without Borders, which works to spread the values of Burning Man to the wider world year-round and engages in humanitarian work.
Burning Man and the Meaning of Life begins at 10 p.m. Saturday, December 1, at 7421 W. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach. Tickets cost $18 at the door or $15 if purchased in advance at jpifproductions.com. After the film, there will be a Q&A with unit production manager John Pifher (Julie Pifher's brother) and video editor Lenore Smith.