A few years back I made a movie, Combust in Unity. Here it is, free to watch online. I’m linking it here for two reasons. First, as the DVD is no longer available, I don’t see the need for it to have its own website any longer. This post preserves the blurbs and directors notes from the dedicated site. Second, it serves as an interesting marker in my own process towards living my genius. Burner culture is particularly life affirming and has had a definite positive influence on my life.
COMBUST IN UNITY is a cinema verite documentary about the 2008 Kiwiburn festival. Filmmakers Jonathan Todd and Paul Wedel gained unprecedented access to one of New Zealand’s most vibrant, relevant and unknown artistic and cultural movements, giving an intimate glimpse of an open yet underground culture – the bleeding edge of experimentation and thought, the far edge of the early adopters, the place where dreams and reflections reveal the world left behind in the search for something more.
Kiwiburn is the NZ Regional Burning Man Festival. Burn festivals are unique – all the art and entertainment at the event is created by the participants. Participants bring everything they need to survive for the duration of the festival. Nothing may be bought or sold, only gifted. The result is a high-energy environment vastly different to the heavily mediated default world – one which often creates powerful transformative experiences in participants.
During the build up to the burn Combust in Unity follows the organisers – including Wendy, the pink-haired sheep shearing chairperson – and artists – including Rich, an English ex-pat building a pirate ship in his garage – and explores why they work for months in preparation for the festival. Intertwined with this it explores the festival’s history and philosophy.
Burning is an international subculture which draws in people from all walks of life. A range of memorable characters – locals and internationals – engage in articulate exploration of their motivations in seeking the extremes of experience at a burn, and the relation the festival has to their normal lives. Participants are drawn together by a hunger for community, opportunities for more genuine connection and expression, the potential for radical self-exploration, and the promise of the best party of the year.
The action then moves to the festival itself, which is left to speak for itself. Kiwburn’s scale at this stage in its growth allows the essence of the burn to reveal itself. Some paddocks by a lake in a sleepy small town in New Zealand are transformed into a free space that glows in the night. At the burn, participants take on new names and explore themselves in an environment which encourages radical self-expression, creativity, and unmediated interactions.
Combust in Unity immerses the viewer in four days of spontaneous chaos, captured on roaming cameras and in a confessional booth, as several hundred burners make art and party in a temporary autonomous zone free from the usual roles and constraints of society. Notable events include a fashion show, the wildest wedding ever, and an unplanned explosive finale. But the burn is really about the moments in between – the freedom to discover, reconnect, and just be oneself.
Combust in Unity was made from a mad dream. Starting out with no money, equipment or prior experience, it was made with the same spirit of exploration that possesses the burn. This congruence between the subject and the process of realising the artwork is crucial to the integrity of the end result.
To gain access to the community, we had to participate fully. We were granted no privileges. The location shoot was carried out under all the conditions of other participants. Our film become our art project at the festival. We built a standalone confessional booth for participants to record directly to camera.
Filming a festival with no schedule but spontaneity that runs 24 hrs a day with three cameras and a two-man crew resulted in little sleep!
With a background in social psychology, and having written about alternative forms of social and economic organisation, I came into this project looking for the revolution. I didn’t find it. Or, rather, I realised that the burn is not the revolution. The burn exists in relation to society. It temporarily suspends society, but is not a model to replace society. It is what we need to survive the society we find ourselves in.
Crucially, what the burn provides is an environment in which we can have an authentic experience of ourselves. And, ultimately, authentically being ourselves is the revolution. Reconnected to ourselves at the burn, we go into the world anew, authentically ourselves, and make the world, and our lives in it, what we want them to be.
On a personal note, the film reflects an extreme time in my life. The day before principal interview shooting began, my brother collapsed and went into a coma. Three days later he died. Two weeks later we were filming on location under challenging conditions at an extremely challenging event. The film is highly charged in many ways.