It is a cliche for hack writers and barstool philosophers to contemplate what Martians would think of the Earth if they were to land here tomorrow. What would they think of the way that we treat the forests and the animals? What would they think of the way that we treat each other? What do we look like from outer space? The omnipotence of this tired musing speaks to humanity’s Sisyphean desire to step outside our own subjective experience of the world — to walk in someone else’s shoes, so to speak, and to make a connection with their foreign world.
Director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson sought answers to these questions in their 1992 film “Baraka.” This was a poetic documentary on a grand scale; it sought to visually chart the vicissitudes of human and natural experience without relying on any narrative or dialogue.
“Baraka” is about humans and our environs. In 1992, with the Cold War over and the environmental movement entering a new phase, it allowed us to step back to measure the Earth’s collective pulse.
After five years of shooting across several continents, Fricke and Magidson have returned with “Samsara,” a sequel of sorts to “Baraka.” If “Baraka” was about the intersection of humanity and nature, then “Samsara” has its lens set squarely on humanity — with the exception of a long shot of sand-dunes, there is scarcely a minute in the film without a human subject or the abandoned evidence of people in the form of decomposing buildings. I spoke with Frick and Magidson to discuss “Samsara” and what the film means to them following the success of “Baraka.”
For Magidson, “‘Samsara’ is about depicting humanity’s life cycle and connecting that to the world in which humans live — “’Samsara’ means ‘the ever turning wheel of life.’” For Magidson, the keystone of the film is an image of Tibetan Buddhists painstakingly crafting an intricate mandala (a wheel-like image) from colored sand, only to sweep it away. The film begins with its creation, and concludes with it being destroyed. “The image is a metaphor for the cycle of life — of birth, death and rebirth,” says Magidson. The focus on humans and human life is a part of documenting the “flow” of life, and hence the film focuses more on urban landscapes and away from the balance between the urban and natural focuses of “Baraka.”
Of course the intrigue of “Samsara,” like its predecessor, lies only in part in its philosophical musings. Equally as important is the sheer visceral experience of the film. If an audacious film justifies audacious praise, then it is safe to say that “Samsara” might be the most beautiful film ever photographed. Take away any intellectual response to the film, and what is left is an image so serene that even when its eye is trained on the charred skin of a dead man, one cannot help but marvel at its beauty. From hurricane-ravaged classrooms in New Orleans, to Dubai’s Palm Island and the Palace of Versailles, “Samsara” promises you the world in images, and does a mighty good job at delivering them.
Given the film’s global aspirations, it is perhaps unsurprising that Fricke and Magidson claim Youtube as the source of their inspiration. Thankfully, the influence of the ever-reductive Internet stops there — Frick shot “Samsara” on 70 mm film stock, which allows for twice the resolution of conventional 35 mm variety. For filmmakers whose stated ambition is to film the many varieties of life, 70 mm breathes the detail of life from every pore.
For a film with no dialogue or narrative, “Samsara” is really the product of the twin labours of photography and film editing. “Samsara” is pure cinema — a rare breed of filmmaking that casts off the yoke of literary and theatrical influence to fully embrace film language. The dialogue of the film is to be found in the subtle contrasts of Frick’s photography, the punctuation exists in the soft cadence of Magidson’s rhythmic editing. Stories are told through compositions that bring together the Pyramids of Giza with the modern Cairo skyline. Witty comparisons are made by cutting together images of factory-farmed pigs being disembowelled with an image of a glutton’s liposuction operation. The story of “Samsara,” if there is one, is told exclusively in the language of cinema.
Occasionally, Fricke and Magidson’s gaze places the viewer in an unnerving position. They have a fetish for the strange and unusual, like mass hip-hop dancing in a prison or a man being buried in a gun-shaped coffin. Sometimes this gaze uncomfortably steps into the bounds of ethnography. “Samsara” shows tribal African families wearing unfamiliar garb framed in neutral compositions staring blankly into the camera. Compositions like this place the viewer in the world of Victorian ethnographic photography. One almost feels like a companion of David Livingstone or H.M. Stanley on one of their expeditions into what was then known as “darkest Africa.”
For the makers of “Samsara,” however, these sequences are not about highlighting difference, but about finding commonality. “We don’t try and come at it from a Western perspective, but from a human perspective,” says Magidson. “Samsara,” after all, is the cycle of life and rebirth that on some level, all earthly life is bound to.
If those cliched Martians ever do come to Earth, it is impossible that any single work of art or literature could articulate for them the vast breadth of human experience. “Samsara” sets its sights a little lower, but its grand scope and unfaltering technical flare eloquently argues a humanitarian thesis that at least we people can connect with.
Thomas Coughlan is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]