Netflix and Hulu’s Fyre docs offer contrasts

By COLE DOUGLASS | January 31, 2019

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Almost immediately after their respective releases, documentaries Fyre Fraud and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened quickly attained a level of memetic popularity almost on the level of the titular music festival itself. Hulu’s decision to release Fyre Fraud the day before Netflix’s Fyre was slated to release quickly grabbed the internet’s attention, and the subsequent sniping between the two streaming platforms made the whole conflict even more enticing.

As a result, one question has been at the forefront of social media: Which Fyre Festival documentary is the best Fyre Festival documentary? Luckily, I have both a Netflix account and a friend who still uses her ex-boyfriend’s Hulu account, so I have been fortunate enough to view both films and can hopefully put an end to this conflict once and for all.

For those who haven’t seen the documentaries or don’t remember the social media hype surrounding the event, Fyre Festival was supposed to be the equivalent of a modern-day Woodstock. It was a highly anticipated event, due primarily to the incredibly effective use of social media to market the event. However, when guests arrived to their luxurious island retreat, they found that the festival organizers had barely provided the bare necessities for survival. The event quickly fell into chaos as the guests struggled to safely return home.

Of the two documentaries, Netflix’s Fyre definitely takes a more charitable interpretation of events. For the most part, it portrays the festival as a genuine attempt to create an amazing event that buckled due to time constraints and poor management. Even as the interviews with Fyre staff reveal the extreme dysfunction and lack of organization that plagued the event, it is clear that a lot of people working on the event wanted it to succeed and devoted immense amounts of time and money to try and reach that goal.

The staff interviews were actually my favorite part of Netflix’s Fyre and, in my opinion, its most effective rhetorical tool. It is evident that these workers were deeply invested in the event, and they all have a clear emotional attachment to the narrative as a result. There are a couple of genuinely affecting moments peppered throughout the documentary, like when a Bahamian restaurateur reveals that she had to pay her workers out of her own savings after Fyre Media couldn’t pay them. 

The Netflix documentary is largely confined to the timeline of the festival, which allows its exploration of the event to go fairly in-depth. Again, the interviews provide a lot of details about the event’s planning, while footage from the festival does a great job of describing the conditions that the guests found themselves in. Ultimately, I felt like I walked away from Fyre with a fairly strong understanding of what went down at the actual festival, which is the optimal end result for the viewing of any documentary.

However, although I really enjoyed Fyre, I definitely think that it is worth noting that the documentary was produced by fuckjerry, the marketing company responsible for making Fyre Festival so well known in the months leading up to the event. Their influence definitely calls the documentary’s impartiality into question and makes their optimistic interpretation of events seem more like an attempt to deflect blame than act as a factual exploration of Fyre Festival. Although I definitely think that it is important to take Fyre’s interpretation with a grain of salt, the documentary is overall a well-constructed and entertaining film that provides a thorough understanding of Fyre Festival and the events leading up to it.

On the other hand, Hulu’s Fyre Fraud is not a documentary about the Fyre Festival itself but about Billy McFarland, the event’s founder. By tracing the history of McFarland’s previous fraudulent business enterprises, the filmmakers frame Fyre Festival as just another in a long line of scams and cons. However, the documentary ultimately suffers from its inconsistent rhetoric and lack of focus, making it the weaker of the two films.

Fraud’s emphasis on contextualizing Fyre Festival is the strongest and most interesting aspect of the film. It spends a solid chunk of its runtime drawing parallels between Fyre Festival and McFarland’s other businesses, resulting in a pretty compelling argument that the festival was just another scheme to steal from impressionable kids on the internet. The more cynical interpretation has a lot of merit, and the arguments are more rationally convincing than the emotional appeals of Fyre.

However, the strength of Fraud’s arguments is undermined by confusing creative decisions that pull attention away from the documentary’s core message. For instance, the documentary features very few interviews with members of the Fyre team, instead relying on journalists to explain the narrative. There’s nothing technically wrong with those interviews, but there’s very little insider information and no emotional connection to the material. The filmmakers do speak with a former member of fuckjerry who was heavily involved in organizing the marketing, and those segments are very informative and well done, though they are too few.

The documentary also fails to establish an emotional connection to the people who actually attended Fyre Festival. In fact, Fraud spends very little of its runtime at the festival. Three attendees are featured in the film, but they all appear to have gotten off of the island fairly quickly, and no additional time is spent with the people who were not as fortunate. Furthermore, the filmmakers are consistently critical of social media influencers and the online culture that helped make the festival popular in the first place. Although that critique isn’t inherently detrimental, it is difficult to sympathize with the people who attended the festival when so many of them are framed so disdainfully by the documentary.

None of these flaws directly contradict the critiques leveled against Fyre Festival and McFarland; if the arguments were presented in a different format, I think that they would be fairly convincing. However, Fyre Fraud lacks cohesion, which makes it much more difficult to take its standpoint on the event seriously and makes for a weaker and less engaging film.

So there you have it. Netflix is officially the winner of the Battle of the Fyre Festival Documentaries. Ultimately, I would recommend viewing both films, as the two do play off of one another in a number of interesting ways, and viewing one film helps to re-contextualize and deepen one’s understanding of the other. However, if you’re debating whether or not to sign up for Hulu or Netflix based solely on the strengths of their Fyre Festival documentaries, I would definitely point you toward Netflix.

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