Biweekly Binge: Fyre, the festival of plights
A fortnightly column on what’s good – old and new - in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you
In the early portions of Fyre, the Netflix documentary directed by Chris Smith, based on the Fyre Festival scam by entrepreneur Billy McFarland, American rapper Ja Rule introduces McFarland at a tech event as his "partner in crime." Ja Rule uses the banal phrase like anyone would, but we know what we are watching, we know what the Fyre Festival turned out to be like and his phrasing evokes uncomfortable laughter. They go on to explain how McFarland tracked down Ja Rule as a performer/talent and how he had to go through a herd of middlemen, the fee increasing exponentially at each level. This experience led to something called the Fyre app, a marketplace to connect consumers directly to talent. A lot of talk around the Fyre Festival and the documentaries (there is another one on Hulu that was released just a few days before the Netflix one) tend to become a commentary on culture, millennial lives and the privilege of access provided by the Internet.
Fyre is all that and more. It stays focused on the perpetrators from beginning to end, it wants to let you know what happened and how it happened, leaving the judgement to you. It does a great job of establishing just how malicious and delusional they were right from the inception of the festival. A culture of toxic masculinity that everyone is all too familiar in the tech space can be perceived right through what McFarland and Ja Rule try to envision in the run up to the festival. They announce loudly to no one that their dream is for "normal people" to live like movie stars, party like rock stars and **** like porn stars. The phrase "selling pipe dream to the losers" is used. They buy a deserted island off the Bahamas and advertise it as the one Pablo Escobar used to own, almost the second after they are told not to make that fact public. The candid shoots they arrange all over the island with the world's top supermodels becomes an allegory to what they are planning - there is no direction or a script or a sense of organisation to what they are planning. It's as unplanned and as "everything goes" as the shoot with the models. At one point, the supermodels invade a drove of pigs, some even finding their way into the ocean with the women.
Playing along, minus the malicious intent but boosting self-worth nonetheless, were scores of young, rich social media influencers including Kendall Jenner. Smith doesn't want you to blame or point fingers at the audience that wanted to be part of a festival whose aim was to "drive investors away from Coachella." Calvin Wells, a VC who grew suspicious of the festival earlier than most, talks about how McFarland is great at "separating consumers from their cash" and that attitude will always have takers in America. Fyre therefore concentrates less on the consumers. What would you do if you were promised luxury villas and Blink 182, and end up getting wet mattresses in an unsecured tent on an uneven landscape with no hint of the promised festival?
The documentary also packs a host of characters that alternate between shocking you with their absurdity and the next second, surprising you with real talk. Logistics person Keith Siilats takes the gang into zero gravity for fun, and claims he learned to fly from Microsoft Flight Simulator. He is also the first voice of reason that you hear, denying that the island can hold 10,000 people, admitting that the infrastructure required is impossible (the man is hands-on, he pitches a tent and spends a night with his wife to test the whole scenario). Andy King, an event organiser, oscillates between incredulity at the idea and his affinity for McFarland, his protege - he tries to rationalise by bringing up Woodstock, an iconic event whose ugly parts remain hidden or forgotten to this day. He also gives us the most surreal story in Fyre, something McFarland requests him to do.
The characters that suffer lasting implications of McFarland's machinations are the locals making up the workforce of Bahamas. When McFarland and team move the festival to a more densely populated part of Bahamas, there are talks about jobs for years and a boost to the economy. What it ends up becoming is a form of neo-colonialism, the white entrepreneur exploiting the labour force physically and emotionally, no payment ever reaching the large number of people employed. Maryann Rolle, the caterer, cuts the most sympathetic figure, having to dig into her years of personal savings to compensate her employees. If the Internet and living-in-the-moment millennial culture paved way for a scam like Fyre Festival, it also paved way for a crowdfund for Rolle. Since the release of the film, donations to Rolle have reached $145000, an amount significantly larger than her goal. But in true Internet fashion, some of the donations are believed to be from firms associated with the documentary or the festival. The question therefore is, how to enjoy the perks of today's ultra-connected world while continuing to practice healthy cynicism? That question needs more than a documentary.