Life

How Netflix’s Fyre Festival documentary helped win justice for the real victims

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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The locals who worked on the event without being paid are the ones who really deserve compensation. Now, after a social media push following the Netflix documentary, that’s happening.       

When Fyre Festival was first unveiled in December 2016, via a deluge of sun-drenched images of supermodels in bikinis in the Bahamas, excitement for the event was high.

Featuring eye-wateringly expensive ticket packages, A-list headliners and the endorsement of everyone from Kendall Jenner (reportedly paid $250,000 or £194,000 for a single post) to Bella Hadid, the festival promised a luxury party experience like no other, all under the sparkling Bahamian sun. Within days, the festival organisers Billy McFarland and Ja-Rule had sold 12,000 tickets, some of which cost $100,000 (£77,679). Anticipation for the event, slated to take place that April, reached a level best described as fever pitch.

The excitement around Fyre Festival wasn’t limited solely to ticketholders. Among the Bahamian islanders, particularly on Exuma where the festival was going to base itself, there was an enthusiasm and eagerness to get involved with a big business that promised to boost the Bahamian economy. 

“We hope this is the first of many steps to bring entertainment and bring value back to the Bahamas,” McFarland said in a press conference in Exuma in early 2017. The festival partnered with the Ministry of Tourism. The organisers spoke about investing in local Bahamian accommodation, restaurants and bars. 

“Fyre was like the thing of the island,” Maryann Rolle, the owner of Exuma Point restaurant and one of the locals employed to work on the festival, recalled in Netflix’s recent FYRE documentary. “Renting so much rent-a-cars. Big jets are flying in. Everybody was saying, ‘Hey, that’s Fyre, they have lots of money, they could do anything.’” 

If it all seems a touch too good to be true, that’s because it probably is. By 27 April, when the first jets arrived in Exuma bringing with them the selfie-ready attendees, the festival had unraveled into complete and utter catastrophe, as laid out in Netflix’s new documentary FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened. 

Instead of luxury glamping, guests would be sleeping in leftover tents from Hurricane Katrina disaster relief that had been soaked through after being left out in the rain. The mattresses and towels were sopping wet. The stage was yet to be built. There weren’t enough bathrooms. Guests’ luggage were dumped on the sand out of containers. Some started looting and vandalising the island and the accommodation. It emerged that the festival organisers had serious cash flow problems, and were relying on the millions of dollars loaded onto festival “bracelets” to pay for food and drink during the event just to keep the business solvent. 

Then, the artists started pulling out. Then, McFarland announced that they were pulling the plug and cancelling the festival. The attendees who arrived at Exuma were kept in a locked room overnight, without food or water, until the next plane back to Miami was scheduled to leave.

Later that year, McFarland was charged with fraud and a class action lawsuit against Fyre was announced on behalf of the swindled ticketholders. In October 2018, McFarland was sentenced to six years in prison after pleading guilty to wire fraud.

Ja Rule and Billy McFarland in Netflix’s FYRE

Though the $100 million (£77.6 million) class action lawsuit against Fyre’s organisers remains ongoing, two of the ticketholders were awarded $5 million in compensation (£3.88 million) in 2018 in a separate legal battle with the festival. (They are yet to receive any money).

But what about the Bahamians? What about the real victims of the Fyre Festival? What about the 200 local labourers drafted in to build the stage and campground who are owed an estimated $250,000 (£194,360)? What about J.R, the Bahamian site manager who served as a right hand man to McFarland, who had to leave his home in Exuma because the Fyre organisers never honoured their debts to local workers? 

What about Maryann Rolle and her husband Elvis, who took on the job of providing 1,000 meals for all the festival workers from their Exuma Point restaurant every day, and who went through $50,000 (£38,872) of her personal savings to honour the wages owed to the 10 employees she took on to work “all day and all night, 24 hours” on the catering for the festival?

“I am here as a Bahamian,” she said in Netflix’s FYRE documentary. “And they stand in my face every day… I could have had [those savings] for a rainy day, and they just wiped it out and never looked back.” 

Tearfully, she added that she hasn’t heard from Mcfarland or the festival administrators since the event. “Personally, I don’t even like to talk about the Fyre Festival, just take it away and just let me start a new beginning,” she said. “‘Cos they really really hurt me. I am really hurt from that. To see nobody return to say: ‘Let me take care what she has done, we know she has done right.’ I just leave it alone cause it really pains me when I have to talk about it so I just wipe it away.”

But at least there’s some good news to come out of the Fyre Festival this week. After the FYRE documentary premiered on Netflix on 18 January, the Rolles launched a gofundme asking for anyone to contribute to the $123,000 (£95,625) in lost income that they suffered because of the festival. Almost 4,000 people have contributed to the cause, with the gofundme raising more than $130,000 (£101,000) thus far.

Tributes to Maryann are pouring in on social media, with those donating to the gofundme leaving messages of support.

“You deserve all the good karma in the world for being put through this and giving it everything you could,” someone wrote. “She never deserved what happened,” added another. “She [is] a hard worker and a selfless person to give her savings to her employees. “You were wronged; time for other people to make it right,” another added. 

Images: Netflix

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer, podcaster and recent Australian transplant in London. You can find her on the internet talking about pop culture, food and travel.

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