“How did you go bankrupt?”
“Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.”
- Ernest Hemingway.
FYRE, the bizarre story of an exclusive music festival that imploded on the public stage, makes for so much more than morbid fascination. Chris Smith’s latest documentary is a tale of confidence men, super models and the online elite becoming absorbed in a fantasy of their own creation and crashing through the lives of the inhabitants of an island paradise.
FYRE festival exploded into the public’s consciousness in 2016 when the royalty of Instagram shared pictures of themselves sunning on empty white beaches by day and drinking beer by firelight at night with the now infamous #fyrefest hashtag. No context was offered as to why Emily Ratajkowski and Bella Hadid, amongst others, were in this paradise let alone what "Fyrefest" was.
The behind the scenes footage, gathered from the jilted PR firm hired to construct this perfection, shows a different story of the men with the vision: Billy MacFarlane and rapper Ja Rule meticulously staging, arranging, and releasing images through the models’ accounts. The marketing of the event was an extraordinary success. People threw thousands of dollars at MacFarlane not knowing in the slightest what they were buying. Advertised as being “on the boundary of the impossible”, this is a story of arrogance, on one hand, and naivety, on the other.
Smith’s construction of the documentary masterfully ties together the behind the scenes footage with interviews of those involved, punctuating eye-watering levels of tension with brilliant comic timing. FYRE is both funny and incredibly depressing. As time marched on for Billy and the gang, the impossibility of their task, of creating this spectacular festival, becomes more and more apparent; people are bullied, not paid, and one is even asked to suck someone’s dick to clear a shipment of Evian water through customs. Lives were ruined by Billy and Ja Rule.
All this becomes public knowledge in the aftermath of FYRE and the documentary is worth it just to see Billy end up in federal jail. But, this is also a story about so many more people than Billy and his victims. FYRE says as much about the models, influencers, and festival-goers as it does about Billy and his crimes. It is a story about influencers blindly taking money to support a product that did not exist - often failing even to mention that their support was bought. It is a story about consumers with more money than sense, trying to buy their way into an isolated island in the Caribbean, populated exclusively by celebrities and models. Most of all, this documentary is a story with a profound sense of emptiness at the heart of a wishful fantasy.
FYRE is a perfect metaphor for our times, as if someone decided to mix up The Great Gatsby, Instagram, and Cambridge Analytica (in all fairness to Billy, he pretty much did). The nightmarish reality that wealthy young adults were lured to a secluded island to stay in hurricane shelter tents, and then soaked through by a tropical storm, is troubling enough. The fact that many immediately started stockpiling pillows, mattresses, and destroying other tents when they were aware there was not enough to go around, because, as one man said, they “didn’t want neighbours”, is one of the bleakest things I have seen in a while.
Edited by Eloïse Wright, Head Film Editor