Fyre Fraud trailer

Telling the Same Story Soberly

And yet others would raise a more skeptical eyebrow at the documentary that arrived later last week, Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, from director Chris Smith. (You might know Smith best from his early-2000s documentary American Movie, about a very strange guy and his desire to make a movie no matter what the cost.) There are some to-be-expected crossovers between Fyre and Fyre Fraud. Not only are they using the same misbegotten event as the subject of their films, but both movies are roughly the same length (95 minutes) and even speak to some of the same people.

That said, the way each documentary tackles the Fyre Festival is vastly different. People defending the Hulu documentary will immediately remind you that Fyre was partially produced by Jerry Media, the media company that worked on marketing the Fyre Festival before it became a worldwide laughingstock. Though that’s true, Jerry Media and its Millennial marketers don’t come off looking like the hidden heroes of the Fyre Festival debacle, but that’s because there really aren’t any heroes in this piece.

Leave aside the ethics of these documentaries, and that the quest for truth in documentary filmmaking will arguably always be elusive. These filmmakers made calculated decisions in who they talked to, what comments from the talking heads they left in, when to cut away, etc. Even the best documentaries will always have dubious ethics. Importantly, where these documentaries diverge is in their tones.

The directors of the Hulu documentary, themselves in the same broad age range that qualifies them as Millennials, almost instantly strike a smug tone. Fyre Fraud uses an excess of pop-culture references (and clips from a lot of TV shows that you can find streaming…on Hulu), and it replicates meme-style fonts to echo what its participants are saying at a given moment. By the end of Fyre Fraud, one of the ex-employees of Jerry Media says that “everyone” was to blame, a culmination of a documentary that wants to present a surface-level exploration of why people had such glee in mocking the attendees of Fyre Festival as much as the festival itself.

Fyre, on the other hand, is a far more sober documentary. Smith doesn’t use a lot of flashy techniques to gussy up the already insanely shocking revelations throughout the build-up to and disastrous day of the festival itself. Perhaps the most jaw-dropping story comes from event producer Andy King, who was apparently called upon by McFarland to convince Customs to release four eighteen-wheelers full of water to the festival grounds. King, a gay man, was exhorted to give the head of Customs a blow job, and as King describes, he was perfectly willing to do so. This shocking anecdote is the apex of the jaw-dropping stories you’ll hear in either documentary, but it showcases a fatal flaw neither documentary is able to tackle: explaining why people were so seduced by Billy McFarland.

An Enigma of a Villain

McFarland, as mentioned above, only gave the Hulu documentary an exclusive interview, which might seem like a leg up, except he offers little to no insight to the filmmakers. Fyre isn’t lacking for McFarland’s presence; if there’s any advantage to working with Jerry Media, it must be the treasure trove of footage that Smith’s able to use for the final product. (That may be the primary reason why Jerry Media is even listed as a producer.) As such, you see more than enough of McFarland, from his partying on the beaches of the Bahamas during the now-infamous commercial shoot with ten of the top supermodels around the world, to falling asleep at the side of the ocean during the middle of the day. The real kicker comes at the very end, as you see footage of McFarland, after his first court appearance post-Fyre, directing people to commit a vast ticketing scam.

But none of the footage you see in either Fyre or Fyre Fraud reconciles the number of people in both documentaries who talk about how much they believed in Billy, or in Fyre Festival, or in the Fyre app. (Meant to enable the user to book major talent for events, the Fyre app was supposed to be the whole point of the Fyre Festival.) There’s never a moment in either documentary, either in watching McFarland’s new interview or in the countless shots of him partying or, again, committing crimes on camera, where the cult of personality surrounding him makes a lot of sense. Where Fyre succeeds that Fyre Fraud doesn’t is in visually communicating how screwed over so many of these people were by buying into the notion of the Fyre Festival, from software designers to Bahamian restaurateurs and contractors. Where Fyre is sober, Fyre Fraud is snide, a Millennial-made documentary attacking Millennials with Millennial-era tropes.

After watching both Fyre and Fyre Fraud, it’s easy enough to be reminded of how much artifice goes into any documentary, as much as we may expect them to be entirely about capturing and presenting the truth. Fyre Fraud quickly divorces itself from reality with its reliance on gags and clips, as if they exist to keep the audience paying attention lest we get too bored with the events on camera. (And again, when you’re paying a convicted criminal to talk to you, even though you acknowledge he’s a compulsive liar, you’re not being terribly ethical.) Fyre tries to take another tack, while itself being a not-entirely-convincing version of the truth due to only exploring certain avenues in part. Each of these documentaries took ethical shortcuts to arrive at the same conclusion; only one did so by mocking its participants.

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