FIRST, IMAGINE a trip involving the hottest models on Instagram, sea cruises atop a sunlit deck, and the top-charting music artists blasting their best hits on a luxurious beach island. Beautiful people dance and have drinks on the edge of the cruise ship, eagerly anticipating the next day. Now, imagine thousands of confused crowds, huddled up on a small, barren island with no food, water, information, nor escape. The weather is unforgiving, and panic is thick in the air, everyone clueless and scared. Both scenarios describe the infamous 2017 event, the Fyre Festival, but only the latter became a reality when it became one of the biggest failures ever witnessed on social media. In order to uncover the hidden secrets behind the festival’s failure, Hulu, a popular U.S. streaming site for movies and TV shows, released a 2018 documentary called Fyre Fraud. However, it lacks in content and fails to deliver in regard to what a good documentary should contain.
The history of the Fyre Festival
Fyre Fraud begins with a simple party scene. As hundreds of attractive people dance and have fun, one is taking a video of the entire event, posting it on social media for everyone else to see. A voiceover then grabs the viewer’s attention by directly addressing them with the word “you.” It assumes that “you” are most likely in your parents’ house, watching the event through Instagram and wishing to be part of it, no matter the cost. Thus, the film introduces the audience to the two main subjects at hand, the millennial culture and the Fyre Festival, which took the internet by storm for being one of the most advertised and the most epic failures anyone had ever witnessed.
The Fyre Festival was originally a stunt to promote a newly created app of the same name, created by the self-proclaimed entrepreneur, Billy McFarland. He announced the event through a fantasy-filled trailer that various social influencers such as Kendall Jenner advertised by uploading a single orange picture with a flame logo. People were promised “an immersive music festival on the boundaries of the impossible,” and tickets sold out almost immediately.
However, the event faced various planning and administration issues as it was forced to move locations, and millions of loans were taken out trying to add every spectacle imaginable in a limited time frame. Every issue was ignored under the assumption that it would magically resolve itself, and slowly, the event experienced security, food, and accommodation problems. Despite the glaring red flags that the festival would inevitably fail, McFarland convinced the organizers to continue forward. Ultimately, they were unable to resolve the complications, and guests were met with refugee tents on rubble, haphazardly made “gourmet” sandwiches, and a disastrous view of “the greatest music festival of all time.”
The event was cancelled but festival-goers were left stranded on the island as the local government issued a shutdown that denied all planes entry. In the aftermath, the organizers were subject to multiple lawsuits and McFarland was sentenced to six years in prison after pleading guilty to charges of wire fraud and counterfeit ticketing.
The Fyre Fraud documentary
Fyre Fraud focuses mainly on the millennial* and influencer** culture by explaining how they played immense roles in creating and eventually pushing the festival to failure. People’s attention was directed straight at the event because the biggest social influencers posted the infamous orange “visual disruption,” as the documentary calls it, and thus blew the event out of proportion. The documentary uses the festival as “proof that the power of influence is real” because McFarland exploited the influencer culture to feed millennials impossible ideals and leave them blinded to the warning signs. It is not until over halfway through the film that it actually delves into the behind-the-scenes of the event, and this is only briefly explained.
Sprinkled throughout the film is an exclusive interview with McFarland himself, whose background is explored. His childhood and earlier business days are explained to give McFarland more context as an individual. He admits blame for the tragedy of the event, but sometimes looks visibly shaken by some of the questions. The interview thus brings more dimension into the man who has only been labelled a fraud in the news.
The documentary’s editing and directing style mirrors the chaotic millennial lifestyle. Snippets of funny video clips are intertwined with the voiceover, and these clips give the impression of badly photoshopped memes. The music, along with the sound effects, is comical. The audience will most likely have heard them in cartoons and kid shows, disrupting the overall somber tone of the event. The film ends with upbeat music while giving brief written updates on the people involved, such as the Bahamian workers and McFarland, who is currently in prison.
How Fyre Fraud fails to deliver
As Garry Beitel, director of Nothing Sacred states, a good documentary is a story that “inspires us to see the world with greater clarity.” It is more than a long informative exposition; a good documentary is a narrative that takes its time with the subject and gives characters layers of dimension to make the story more real. The material must be abundant and open-minded to give the audience a chance to analyze the work for themselves. Dirk Eitzen, a professor of film and media studies at Frank & Marshall College, explains that documentaries actively make an argument about “the historical world,” or the truth, in hopes of persuading the viewers of their point of view. By creatively interpreting reality, good documentaries must be visually stunning and mind-altering.
The film’s social commentary on the influencer and social media culture is splendidly done. The movie frames a simple but effective critique on today’s social culture that boldly outlines the ridiculous amount of power influencers have over millennials. Using the Fyre Festival as the focal point in “the historical world,” the film perfectly gets its argument across that this influence is becoming a genuine social phenomenon.
Despite this small victory, it focuses too much on this intent and ends up failing to honor its promises of other features, such as a detailed explanation of how the event was created, sponsored, and ultimately driven to tragedy. The promotion trailers and photos mislead the viewers into thinking that the movie will go into such details, but this portion is minor compared to the overwhelming explanation of the millennial culture. Though the plot summary does point out that it explores “the failed music festival at the nexus of social media,” there is still an overabundance of only one particular subject, which quickly becomes repetitive as the movie progresses.
Moreover, it lacks diversity in perspective and content. The narrative hints at closer relations between the festival and the millennials than with McFarland himself, leaving viewers with the impression that the festival-goers are more to blame for the failure. The portrayal of McFarland himself is tame and what criticism the film offers is hidden. Though the interview introduces a fresh perspective, it also depicts him as a victim, especially when the documentary takes an unnecessary detour to cover his cute but outlandish childhood antics.
However, the worst aspects of the film are the sound and the visuals. Michael Moore, an award-winning documentary film-maker, emphasizes that “sound is more important than picture.” Even if the story is not well-executed, if the sound is appealing enough, the audience will most likely keep watching. Fyre Fraud’s background music gears toward cheesy and breaks the atmosphere of an otherwise informative film. For example, footage of people being trapped in the airport with no food or water is shown with calm elevator music playing in the background. The cheap music pokes fun at what originally was a life-threatening moment, leaving viewers to wonder whether to take this information seriously. Furthermore, the visuals are unprofessional and silly. For example, video clips of cartoons or excerpts from comedy shows are mismatched with important narration. The badly edited meme shots that the editors created evoke lukewarm humor at best for the viewers and portray the chaos as merely a joke.
There is not enough material for the viewer to ponder more over the event. The documentary lacks impartiality because it portrays millennials as more of villains than the actual villain himself. The video clips run for far too long, almost as if the movie has nothing else to say and is only trying to fill up allotted time space. The sound and visuals are unattractive, and the audience is not given a chance to wonder about the people personally affected by the failure such as the Bahamian workers and the planners who, due to the imbalance of information between them and McFarland, were frauded with the rest.
Conclusively, Hulu’s Fyre Fraud falls short in giving 100%, leaving viewers hungry for more.
*Millennial: A generational group that has grown up with the technological boom
**Influencer: Anyone with a social following, whose posts on social media can affect the thoughts of people exposed to them