Fyre and Fyre Fraud Compared

It’s been less than two years since the debacle of the Fyre Festival. The proposed event on a Bahamian island was going to showcase major musical acts such as Blink-182 and Major Lazer; it was overseen by, among others, rapper Ja Rule; and it would create a new Coachella or Burning Man for the social-media elite.

Of course, the dreams of the festival organizers were revealed to be impossible at best and criminal at worst; when attendees (who had paid an insane amount of money) arrived, they found something closer to a disaster zone than a luxury party atmosphere. The ensuing insanity provides fodder for not one, but two documentaries that dropped online last week. Ironically enough, just as Hulu’s Fyre Fraud and Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened document the ethical and moral breakdown of the failed event, they also shine a light on the ethics and morals, or lack thereof, of modern documentary filmmaking.

Fyre trailer

On Shaky Ethical Ground

Last week began with Hulu pulling a Beyonce on everyone, by revealing that its own documentary on the Fyre Festival, directed by Julia Willoughby Nason and Jenner Furst, was available for subscribers. Hulu had announced that they were making a Fyre docuseries back in April of last year, but it was a genuine shock to see that they had stolen Netflix’s thunder. Moreover, the Hulu documentary offered an added bonus (depending on how you look at things): Billy McFarland, the man behind Fyre who is now spending time in jail for his crimes, gave an exclusive interview for this documentary. Plus, Hulu got a few extra days on Netflix, which released Fyre on Friday.

The last week has thus spurred on an intense debate online (primarily on Twitter) over both the quality of the two films — despite the Hulu documentary being available for a few extra days — and over their very existence. Because, yes, it’s about ethics in documentary journalism. As Fyre Fraud points out near the end with a smug sense of glee, the media company Jerry Media, which was heavily involved in marketing the Fyre Festival, was one of the credited producers of Netflix’s documentary, directed by Chris Smith. You might have raised an eyebrow at that revelation — how can a documentary do what audiences expect from a good, successful documentary (a documentation of the truth) if it’s being bankrolled by the people who helped market what was essentially a very large con targeted at influencer culture? How could Fyre not be heavily biased?

The larger wrinkle came through a further revelation in an essay at The Ringer by Scott Tobias. In discussing the two films with Tobias, Chris Smith stated that Billy McFarland had been willing to talk for the Netflix doc, but the rival doc had offered him $250,000 to talk. As Smith explained to Tobias, “…after spending time with so many people who had such a negative impact on their lives from their experience on Fyre, it felt particularly wrong to us for him to be benefiting.” This, in spite of the fact that McFarland was willing to negotiate down to $100,000. It should be noted that Furst, in the same Ringer essay, denies the quarter-million figure while also acknowledging that the Hulu documentary did pay McFarland, who he (with good reason) dubs “a compulsive liar”, for his interview.

After watching Fyre Fraud, it’s doubly mystifying that anyone paid McFarland to talk, both for the very clear ethical issues (if I’m supposed to doubt one documentary produced by people involved in the Fyre Festival, I’m definitely going to be skeptical of another documentary paying the criminal ringleader to talk), and because McFarland shares very little information of insight in his exclusive interview that can’t be found anywhere else. Outside of cutting a figure that suggests both sociopathy and terror akin to that of a kid who’s been caught doing something he knows is wrong, McFarland has even less insight than that of the talking heads who pipe in with their own thoughts on the event, on Millennial culture, and more.

Fyre Fraud Poster

The Mockable Millennial Culture

Once you move past the ethical fragmentation of Fyre Fraud—my searing #hottake is that if you pay a convicted criminal who doesn’t seem to grasp what he did to bilk hundreds of people out of hundreds of thousands of dollars is wrong, you are not being very ethical—you’re left with a documentary that manages to both rush through its story and not provide much insight. The film’s level of insight is established in an early talking-head interview: a young journalist describes how, even before the Fyre Festival, Billy ran up against the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, an entity, he says, “you might know from the show ‘Billions’.”

In case you didn’t already get the connection, Fyre Fraud then helpfully includes a clip of said Showtime drama to hammer home the point. The clip itself offers no insight; it’s just there to make sure you’re on the ball. The use of pop culture to presumably emphasize the arguments being made by the film’s participants happens a lot, frustratingly so. Everything from Parks and Recreation to a Dave Chappelle stand-up bit makes a cameo in Fyre Fraud, a tactic that serves to diminish the jaw-dropping story of how the Fyre Festival came to be and quickly unraveled.

McFarland himself is a glassy-eyed figure in his interviews. He’s a presumed shell of whatever truly charming individual he must have been to convince so many people to invest in his outrageous schemes, from Fyre to a credit-card scam to even a post-Fyre con that got him in trouble, selling tickets for parties like the Met Gala and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, both of which are events that don’t…sell tickets. The hollow tone he strikes is all the more vexing, because it suggests the filmmakers didn’t get their money’s worth for his involvement. (Though it fits his previous con-artist decisions.)

It’s to Fyre Fraud’s credit that, in spite of paying McFarland for his participation, he doesn’t get off easy. (Post-viewing, though, I’d love to know how many of the other people in the documentary — mostly journalists, lawyers, and a few attendees — were aware that he’d been paid to participate.) There’s no way to make McFarland a figure of fun or charm, and the movie doesn’t try to make him a smooth talker. But Fyre Fraud, in how it presents the empty interviews with McFarland and in how it paid him a lot of money to talk about the crimes he committed by swindling people, is on ethically shaky ground.

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