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Raised Barn Press presents
Drama in the Desert: The Sights and Sounds of Burning Man (2002)

"You belong here and you participate. You're not the weirdest kid in the classroom; there's always somebody there who's thought up something you never considered."
- from an essay by Molly Steenson

Review By: Dan Lopez   
Published: March 11, 2003

Stars: Various artists, performers, creators, ordinary people
Director: Holly Kreuter

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (some nudity, potentially offensive activities and artwork)
Run Time: 01h:22m:00s
Release Date:
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+B-B C+

DVD Review

For those who know what Burning Man is, there are two camps: the people who think Burning Man is one of the greatest gathering of artists, non-artists, and just plain interesting people on Earth, and then the people who think it's a stupid, pretentious and pointless gathering of idiots. Sure, there are those in the middle ground, but in general, Burning Man is either the best topic to bring up in a dinner conversation, or the worst. For those unaware of what Burning Man is, it is best described as an annual festival of...stuff. Held over a period of about a week or so, Burning Man is occurs just outside Reno, Nevada in a vast expanse of true desert known as Black Rock. A large, semi-circular "city" of sorts is built around a central figure, a giant wooden man (or sometimes made of other stuff), and within this city, people do pretty much anything they want. They can walk around naked with smiles painted on their knees, or set up a tent and spend some time painting pictures. You can construct giant conceptual artworks, build terrestrial artwork out of the desert, or recite spoken word and poetry to whoever will listen. The festival typically ends with the igniting of the Burning Man, located in the center of the city (although this should by no means be confused with the burning of Old Man Gloom festivals held in New Mexico yearly). The city is entirely self-sufficient, and there is no commercial enterprise other than those that benefit the people and directly profit the local towns.

I, personally, have never attended Burning Man, and my one attempt to go was ruined by a variety of "road trip" mishaps (in fact, I never even made it out of the state). It does fascinate me, though, because it is such a bizarre and truly original gathering of minds. Yes, some of Burning Man is rather dumb and uninspiring, but on the other hand, the people who really go all out just make it all more interesting. The problem is, anyone who hasn't actually BEEN there (me included) really can't truly say much about what it's like to be in the middle of the madness. The book and DVD duo, Drama in the Desert, hopes to change that, while still providing a tribute to the event for those who have attended. Featuring the photos of Holly Kreuter (a rarity given the strictly limited video and photo access at the event) and the words of various participants, the book provides a glimpse into the multi-faceted artistic coalition behind Burning Man. It is self-expression defined.

The DVD is a collection of Kreuter's photographs (some published, some not) set to music, mostly a compilation of very upbeat, all-encompassing ambient tracks. But there is also video footage from the festival, which is a rarity. In general, it paints a very interesting picture of Black Rock City without any annoying narration or other people's opinions layered into the mix. Yes, there's occasional sound bites and on-screen text, but nothing so much as to taint the flow of images and overall feeling. As a result, the book and disc go very much hand-in-hand. They can exist independently, but together they make a much more moving and memorable combination. It isn't presumptuous enough to present the material as a replacement for actually going to Burning Man, either, which is key to how the art comes across. What you get is a controlled dose of exactly what Burning Man stands for, which is basically anything anyone wants it to stand for. It is anarchy of the soul, but yet, it isn't. The dichotomy is the charm.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Despite some slightly off-quality home video footage of various Burning Man events, the whole disc is very well encoded and lacks any serious problems with artifacts or pixelization. The static photos look lovely and the use of computer editing and effects to bring everything together works without being over dramatic or loud.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The stereo audio track is primarily composed of soundtrack music (composed by Sean Abreu), which sounds extremely good and is essentially CD quality. The music is pretty good too, a mixture of many genres sort of blended into a cocktail and evolves here and there. Obviously there's NO way the DVD could encompass every aspect of Burning Man, even musically, so the soundtrack does a good job of being appropriate, but not taking over. The bass is very well balanced and despite no surround enhancements or effects, the soundstage is very wide and feels very much engineered for the home theater as opposed to just a straight stereo transfer.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Packaging: unmarked keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo Gallery
Extras Review: In addition to the main feature, the DVD includes a slide-show of numerous photographs by Holly Kreuter (tallied at 560 by the author's count). Some of the photos are in the Drama in the Desert book, some aren't, and some are seen less cropped. The disc's presentation is a little different from most documentaries, and instead of plain-vanilla chapter stops, the footage is divided up by day-of-festival and section-of-city, be it video, audio, or otherwise.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

Though technically a documentary project, Drama in the Desert is merely a peek into the mentality of Burning Man, a festival that has grown to massive proportions and now stands for everything and anything. While I personally choose to see it more as an artistic collaboration, it can be whatever its participants want it to be, and because of that, it's hard to bring the ideal home. This book and DVD do a pretty good job, though, of whetting the appetite for a journey to the open desert under the shadow of a giant stick-figure.


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