Choosing the Face We See

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Alison Lanier looks at two new documentaries on the Fyre Festival.The disaster of Fyre Festival is so epic and so absurd that it’s—evidently—irresistible to tell and tell again. This past week, two competing Fyre Festival documentaries emerged in cyberspace: Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (Netflix) and Fyre Fraud (Hulu). Fyre Festival is now recognized as an elaborate con—whether its creator, the many-times-over-criminal mastermind Billy McFarland, knew that as he was spinning his web or not. A fast-talking millennial, McFarland came up with deceptive schemes selling the dream of a glitzy lifestyle that only exists on Instagram, from his “exclusive” credit card Magnesis to Fyre Festival.

To settle the obvious question: Netflix’s documentary—a collaboration among outlets plugged into the disaster in real time—is generally better. Where Fyre Fraud (directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason) is flippant, mocking, and generally treats its subject with all the detail and seriousness of a hashtag search, Fyre: The Greatest Party (directed by Chris Smith) has all the first-person details that Fyre Fraud only alludes to. Fyre: The Greatest Party trails Fyre from beginning to end through the eyes of the festival production team. These are insiders who fueled the enthusiasm for the festival, witnessed it going off the rails, and ultimately fled the festival scene lying down in the back of anonymous cars. Fyre Fraud briefly notes at the end of the film that many native workers had never been paid for their long hours. Fyre: The Greatest Party interviews some of those workers, including the now internet-famous cook, Maryann Rolle, who paid her employees—her neighbors and friends—out of her life savings. Netflix tells a tighter, clearer story with its eyes open, and it tells it with far more humanity.

Hulu’s documentary, on the other hand, does a better job of doing a character study of McFarland himself, situating his crimes in context. (Partly, this portrait was accomplished by Hulu paying McFarland an undisclosed amount of money to actually appear in the film.) The Hulu documentary sets Fyre amid the millennial mindset of escapism, the willingness to be lured into buying a better version of your life, in a horrified world rife with terrorism and corruption. In a world where consumers can choose what reality they subscribe to, cons like McFarland’s are, Fyre Fraud argues, right at home.

It’s easy to draw a parallel between Hulu’s choose-your-reality argument and the two competing documentaries. Documentaries are a way of retelling reality, with all its attendant tone, nuance, and blame. For Hulu, the story of Fyre Festival is a Jinx-like true crime saga, albeit one with an enormous amount of humor and far less murder. Fyre Fraud seems, like The Jinx, to be leaning toward trapping its on-camera subject into a kind of confession. The problem with this is that Fyre Fraud has already decided McFarland’s guilt, and McFarland is not—for everything he did manage to pull off—a satisfyingly good liar. While it’s nice to see at least this liar get brutally fact-checked on TV, it’s also done without the complexity and care that Netflix brings to the table.

The question behind the Netflix doc is: how did so many people allow this to happen? How did we get to people running scared and screaming through an unlit island tent city? By breaking down viewpoints and levels of knowledge, that question only becomes more complex. The story isn’t any less absurd than the one Hulu tells, but it is done with much more grounding details and sincerity and much less snide dismissal.

At the end of the day, Fyre Festival is a true crime story—but one unlike The Jinx, The Staircase, or even the Bernie Madoff disaster. It isn’t a murder or a masterful Ponzi scheme; it’s a massive financial, white-collar crime that unfolded—ludicrously, publicly—in real time on a massive online stage. It’s the story of a young man people trusted and even believed in, and whose story was repeatedly chosen, even in the face of contradictory facts. Consider the Covington boys, jeering and mocking Nathan Phillips, an Omaha elder, on camera last Saturday. The wealthy boys and their parents tell their side of the story—clearly untrue from the evidence of the footage—knowing that some people will choose to accept it. The evidence of your eyes doesn’t matter when the perpetrator knows you would prefer a comforting lie instead.

There’s an unappreciated and uncanny parallel between Fyre: The Greatest Party and another true-crime documentary that appeared on Netflix this month: Abducted in Plain Sight (2017). From director Skye Borgman, Abducted tells the story of Jan Broberg and the trusted family friend who drugged and kidnapped her as a child. That man, though, would go on to avoid jail with the help of his manipulation of Broberg’s parents—and then further, to insinuate himself even more into the private life of the family, until he abducts Broberg a second time. Jan Broberg herself, telling her story from the far side of her abuser’s death, details the version of reality he fed to her as a child: that she was actually descended from aliens, that the aliens had a mission for the two of them to get Jan pregnant before she was sixteen…It’s a version of reality that a trusted face sells with horrific consequences. But the discovery of the lie doesn’t immediately unwind the trust that people want to feel for the man they know. A convincing story can do endless harm, as can our willingness to believe it.

These are vastly dissimilar crimes, but the narrative of Fyre: The Greatest Party and Abducted are disturbingly similar. (It is worth noting though that McFarland too attempted to coerce a devotee into performing sexual favors in the name of the team mission.) People go to great lengths to believe what they want to believe, and these charming white men, in a testament to their privilege, are able to sell self-serving stories right up until the moment the counter-evidence becomes inescapable. And in both narratives, the smiling con man doesn’t seem to really feel the repercussions of the damage that’s been done. Rolle, who used a massive chunk of her life savings covering for McFarland’s theft, for instance, is never—in McFarland’s mind, at least—going to be in the same plane of existence as McFarland, who moved into a New York penthouse following his release on bail.

When we start looking at the Fyre Festival narratives as a true crime story, it then becomes a question of who the victims were. Were they the festival-goers? The workers? The organizers and publicists who believed in McFarland’s stories? One thing is for sure: when telling a story about such a damaging con—a story that robbed people of their savings, their security, and their dignity—there isn’t room in the narrative for the perpetrator’s spin. We’ve seen enough shit-eating grins on entitled Covington boys’ faces this week. The smile that says the world can’t touch them. That consequences are for other people.

On one hand, I’d much rather people watch the Netflix documentary, not only because of its quality, but because McFarland isn’t making any more money off it. The good these kinds of stories can do—the best outcome to come out of this viral fascination with an elaborate crime—is to dismantle the platform for the criminal’s future crimes and give retribution to past victims. In both documentaries, the interviewees claim separately that they wouldn’t be surprised to see another McFarland con ten years down the road. Maybe telling these stories has made that eventuality less likely. The crowdfunding project for Rolle has—thankfully—exceeded expectations. And the smiling face has been exposed for what it is: maybe we’ll recognize the smile next time we see it.




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About Author

Alison Lanier is a Boston-based writer and editor currently working in communications at MIT. A graduate of Wellesley College, she is part of the editorial team at Mortar Magazine and AGNI as well as at Atticus Review. Her fiction, poetry, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in Ms. Magazine Online, Bust, The Establishment, and elsewhere.

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