The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yes, it takes two Fyre Festival documentaries to fully convey how easily we’re all scammed

The notorious Fyre Festival was promoted as an elite concert event in the Bahamas, promising its attendees beachside villas, top-notch cuisine and nonstop partying with celebrities and social-network influencers on sandy beaches over two weekends in the spring of 2017.

Instead, as most everyone knows, Fyre was a disaster, becoming Instagram infamous for serving up “a tsunami of Schadenfreude,” as one observer puts it. Most of Fyre’s selfie-
obsessed attendees, who’d paid thousands of dollars to attend, were stranded on a gravel spit with little food, water or shelter, and worst of all, spotty Internet access. Their suffering was exquisite and, admittedly, a fine comeuppance. “White people love camping,” joked “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah when news broke of the festival’s utter failure. “Unless it’s a surprise.”

Now, for reasons that easily dovetail with the same anxieties and lessons of the Fyre debacle, there are two competing documentaries out this week on streaming TV. The first, released in a hurry Monday on Hulu, is co-directors Julia Willoughby Nason and Jenner Furst’s “Fyre Fraud”; the second, premiering Friday on Netflix, is director Chris Smith’s “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened.”

Each project casts some shade on its rival. The Hulu film managed to get an interview with Fyre Festival impresario Billy McFarland before he headed off to federal prison on two counts of wire fraud; the director of the Netflix film says the directors of the Hulu doc paid McFarland for the interview. The Hulu directors have admitted to paying McFarland but say the Netflix film is more compromised from within, because it is co-produced by the same social-network marketing agency that was originally hired to promote Fyre and fan the hype among its unwitting attendees.

Compared with most TV documentaries these days, neither Fyre film appears to be guilty of what viewers are likely to consider an egregious lapse in ethics. Both, in fact, are similarly rooted in a righteous sense of outrage toward McFarland, a 27-year-old tech entrepreneur and con artist with an unlimited appetite for preying on his generation’s obsession with VIP treatment and personal branding. Both films also offer similarly serious, investigative postmortems on McFarland’s ruinously deceptive tactics.

With encouragement and endorsement from the rapper Ja Rule, McFarland persuaded (or tried to persuade) an army of consultants, producers, online influencers, publicists, marketers, co-sponsors, booking agents, technicians and (most tragically) the hard-working local residents of Great Exuma cay to all believe in a festival that, from the start, was poorly planned and never logistically possible. Overstating his assets and cash flow by millions, McFarland essentially robbed Peter to pay Paul — a game he’d been playing since his first business endeavor, an “elite” credit card for millennials that entitled them to perks that never existed.

Fyre turned out to be a fascinating exercise in mass delusion; even as the musical acts canceled and the skies poured rain the night before the festival’s opening day (soaking the mattresses in the disaster-relief tents that would serve as the luxury “villas”), some 400 attendees still boarded planes to attend. They did so even with plenty of evidence (had they bothered to look into it) that they were about to land in their own millennial nightmare, forced to ride yellow school buses to a site resembling a refu­gee camp, where “Lord of the Flies”-style survival instincts would soon kick in.

The world had a good laugh at their expense. By the time one of the disappointed Fyre castaways uploaded a picture of a plain cheese sandwich he had been served in a foam container, the rats responsible had all fled the ship.

The Fyre saga is far from the first financial implosion to become the subject of more than one documentary — and two at the same time may seem excessive, until you’ve seen both of them. It’s no surprise that the 21st century is rife with epic degrees of fraud and gullibility — it can be as simple as someone creating a self-image on social media that is so enviably perfect that they can become a paid influencer, simply on the fantasy that they are cooler than you. It can also be as complicated as an oft-failed businessman rebranding himself and getting elected president. “In the millennial era, scamming is the air we breathe,” New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino observes in the Hulu film.

Bingo. Both these movies are about mutually assured deception and how easy it is now to get taken by a con. Before his fall, McFarland was treated as some kind of wonder kid on cable business shows and at tech-industry expos. In those clips, viewers can see that his confidence and spiels don’t seem all that unique. In fact, McFarland’s boastful BS sounds like life in 2019 — the constant sell, with the fake smiles and self-made demons we’ve become. A millennial-aged colleague says the story of the Fyre Festival makes her not want to ever go to music festivals. I told her it makes me not want to ever leave the house.

Even when it doesn’t intend to, the Netflix film makes a strong case that people are, on the whole, no good. It also notes the many hurtful ways that Fyre’s failures are not just fodder for laughs; the actual suffering continues, especially for a Bahamian restaurant owner who lost her life savings (some $50,000) trying to honor her end of McFarland’s dirty deal. Many of McFarland’s hipper-than-thou recruits here are circumspect about their role in all this; some laugh it off, some are lingeringly disturbed and some — like Ja Rule — seem to have entirely shed any responsibility whatsoever. One comes away with a sense that larger lessons were ignored rather than absorbed.

Whatever the Hulu team may have paid McFarland for an interview, it didn’t get its money’s worth. Still, “Fyre Fraud” edges out Netflix’s film by stepping back and delivering on the stronger, more despairing theme here, which is very clearly this: Society (not just those who were born in the 1980s or ’90s) is losing its ability to sense a snake in the grass. Both “Fyre Fraud” and “Fyre” should give any viewer pause to reflect — and reflect again — on the degree to which we’re all being had.

Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (97 minutes) premieres Friday on Netflix; Fyre Fraud (96 minutes) is available on Hulu.