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Fyre Fest, scams and capitalist art

Análisis by Dave Schneider |
January 29, 2019
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Jacksonville, FL - We’re in an era of capitalism cannibalizing itself. Look at the Trump tax cuts that handed out $1.5 trillion to corporations, which then used the windfall to take out loans, buy back their own stock, and inflate their share prices - all to attract more investors and repeat the cycle! Since art reflects our social conditions, we’d expect to see this same ‘cannibal capitalism’ at play in our movies and television - and we’d be right.

No where is this more apparent than American movies. Beyond the endless stream of remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels and more, we’ve also seen an explosion of films capitalizing on the hyperactivity of the news cycle. Events happen, explode on social media for several weeks, and before the hype ends, there’s already a movie adaptation greenlit in Hollywood.

So it is with two documentaries on Fyre Fest – the infamous music festival in the Bahamas that never happened. In April 2017, a handful of rich yuppies, mid-level musical artists, shameless self-promoters and investors duped thousands of wealthy millennials into paying obscene money for a concert that would never occur. Billed as ‘the next Coachella’ or ‘Burning Man in the Bahamas’, Fyre Fest would supposedly allow the rich and famous to indulge their wildest fantasies for a weekend. Instead, it left them stranded on an island - no concert, no luxury villas, no beachside parties, no water or plumbing.

The whole episode caught fire on social media as the rest of us laughed at these idiot rich kids subjected to Lord of the Flies for a weekend. But before the ink on the indictment papers for Billy McFarland, the architect of the scam, had even dried, Netflix and Hulu saw a business opportunity. Two years later, these streaming services-turned-production companies released their own competing documentaries on the ill-fated festival less than a week apart – ‘dueling documentaries.’

Netflix’s film called Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, is as well-made as the sleek, original promotion video for Fyre Fest, which roped in gullible investors and rich kids around the world. It tells a more compelling narrative than the Hulu feature on the same subject (Fyre Fraud). But when the credits rolled, I felt nothing but scorn for most of the people involved, both in the scam and the documentary itself. Sure, Billy McFarland was a con-artist, but what separated him from the guy selling fake Ray-Bans at a 7-Eleven was money - and Fyre isn’t willing to indict anyone besides the individual.

Countless wealthy investors and vapid Instagram models, laughably known as ‘influencers,’ made McFarland’s scam possible. So too did the Fyre staff, who mostly came from the same class of wealthy fortunate sons (and daughters) that Billy McFarland did. Throughout the film, they plead their case and trash their former boss’ manic indiscretions and deceptions. But while trying to gin up sympathy from the audience, these same staff members happily retell stories from the three-year shenanigans they enabled.

The only protagonists who truly suffered an injustice from Fyre Fest were the hundreds of Bahamian day laborers, service workers and small business owners, who saw their wages stolen and lives destroyed. For months, the workforce on Great Exuma island labored away to construct and service this opulent music festival on the promise of generous wages and economic benefits. Maryann Rolle, a Black restaurant owner, and her staff cooked over a thousand meals per day for the project. But when management finally pulled the plug on Fyre Fest, not a single day laborer received their wages, totaling $250,000. Nor did they pay Rolle and her kitchen staff, forcing Rolle to spend her entire savings making up for the stolen wages.

Interestingly, it was the actions of Bahamian workers who brought the disastrous charade to an end. When it became painfully clear that McFarland and company had no intention of making good on their promises, construction workers went on strike, destroyed the festival site, and went door-to-door looking for Fyre staff members – to get their money by any means necessary. Through more trickery and bribery, McFarland and the others escaped the island, leaving destruction and poverty in their wake. It’s a perfect microcosm of the imperialist relationship between the U.S. and the Third World.

Ultimately, this is why the Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened just doesn’t work: it doesn’t ignore the residents of Great Exuma, but it frames their suffering around the upper-class millennials and festival-goers who got ripped off. I just don’t give a shit about the latter. No working person shells out several thousand dollars for tickets to an exclusive luxury music festival – it’s only rich people. And while they cry foul over McFarland’s deceit, their own wealth is also a product of ruthless exploitation and trickery, even if it’s sanctioned by U.S. law.

Hulu’s Fyre Fraud has earned some praise for looking at the bigger picture. It tries to situate the whole episode in the context of the 2008 financial crisis, the explosion of social media and its impact on millennials. But there’s something rotten below the surface here. In his final scam before prison, McFarland played the two streaming giants against each other to extract a $200,000 payment in exchange for appearing in Hulu’s documentary.

The result isn’t surprising. We get more than an hour of McFarland, a proven sociopath and compulsive liar, giving “his side of the story,” peppered with half-apologies. For its part, Hulu lets its subject off the hook by blaming the larger, more abstracted culture – stopping well short of a systematic critique. McFarland played them like a fiddle, even as he sits in prison today.

I hate indicting movies solely for not pushing a particular political message. It’s often a lazy criticism from politico types who want popular culture to reflect their own ideas, rather than realizing that ideas and art reflect the world. Even movies with contradictory politics have something to tell us about the conditions that produced them. And in all fairness, the films did have one significant positive impact: They sparked a GoFundMe, which raised over $200,000 for Maryann Rolle, her food service workers, and the Bahamian day laborers, who never got paid during Fyre Fest debacle.

But when your documentaries can’t point out the outrageousness of McFarland – responsible for an estimated $100 million in damages – getting just six years in prison, all while millions of Black men spend decades behind bars for minor drug offenses, it’s hard to take seriously. The Fyre Fest scam wasn’t an anomaly; it’s imperialist business as usual. But like the source material, these documentaries have taken social media by storm. It begs the question if Netflix and Hulu aren’t just the latest capitalist vultures feasting away on the bones of Fyre Fest.

Dave Schneider is a union organizer in Jacksonville, Florida, who regularly reviews movies on Letterboxd.

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