First Time Friday … Fyre: selling paradise at the price of the poor.

First Time Friday is a new, what I hope will be weekly, series where I write about a film I’ve seen for the first time. That won’t, of course, preclude me from watching films on other days …

It feels like there’s not much left to say about the Fyre festival debacle, the people behind, and even the two recent documentary films trying to tell the story. A con job that was enabled and bought down by social media , now the subject of short notice films that gain traction through … you guessed it, social media.

This film – the Netflix production – tells the story through footage shot for the festival organisers from conception through to aftermath. It was, as is explicitly said in the documentary, an attempt not so much to put on a music festival as to sell a dream; an exclusive weekend on an idyllic island with supermodels, stars and social media influencers, staying in luxury accomodation, eating the best food and partying. It fell apart in real time, finally exposed to the world by a viral photo of a cheap cheese sandwich taking the place of the best in catering.

That just about everybody fell under the influence of the charismatic, persuasive Billy McFarland is a matter of public record. Several things become apparent as we watch this film. One is that, to quote Leonard Cohen, the people involved really don’t care for music, do they? As quoted above, they didn’t care about the music festival; they cared about a buzz of exclusivity, exploiting FOMO, making money by selling an ephemeral dream. That one of the staff involved, interviewed for the film, is wearing a Nirvana t-shirt whilst he talks about the vision of an island paradise makes this point eloquently; the icons of grunge, repackaged as a fashion accessory.

fyre picture

Even as it becomes apparent that the whole thing is a disaster, and the people trying to make it happen are telling the story, they are laughing. Of course, this may be a trick of the director’s editing, or it may be the laughter of regret and disbelief; either way, they laugh as they talk about sleeping on soaking mattresses and the disappearance of vast amounts of money. At no point do these people show concern for the real victims – the local islanders, who laboured hard to build and set up for the festival and received no money; the local club owner who tearfully tells us of the extra staff she took on in anticipation and had to pay from her life savings when promised money never materialised. The locals – many of whom are poor – will never be paid back. Billy McFarland has been convicted, and others too; but what use is that when you’ve worked for weeks without pay, or shelled money out of our lifetime savings? The rich mostly escape, relatively free; the poor bear the brunt (and this divide is also expressed largely but not exclusively on skin colour lines also). It was ever thus, and it’s a failing of the film that it never really gives full voice or the last word to those who suffered most. We get to peak behind the curtain of deception, but the human cost is never really examined.

The problem is that this was a disembodied project from the word go. Relying on the myth of the perfect sun-kissed island and celebrity lifestyle, the myth was sold, and turned out to be nothing but smoke and mirrors. We can blame it all on social media hype; and yes, that was the vehicle used for this con. But it’s really a story as old as time; it’s always just out of reach, around the next corner, as intangible as it is expensive. No one looks behind the curtain until it’s too late; those that do visit the site in advance or raise a warning word are ignored or sacked. It’s an attempt to parachute a paradise into the backyard of some real people; and leave them to pick up the pieces afterwards. And when they do pick up the pieces, they find they have even less than they started with; no one to pay them back, no one to sit and weep with them, no one to help them rebuild.

As a Christian, I can criticise this – and I do. But that’s a dangerous road; how many megachurch or rich foreign, usually white-skinned missionaries have parachuted in to poorer places promising revival and renewal, not sticking around after to remake what they have broken – or to use the language of the moment, ‘disrupted’? It seems it’s in our nature, all of us, to keep our poor and our mistakes as equally out of our site as each other. Embodiment, incarnation, long-term rooting in the one place; such is the way to which we are called.

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