Samsara

PhotobucketSamsara is a wonder to behold. The Sanskrit word means “continuous flow”, the repeating cycle of birth, life, death and reincarnation. This non-verbal documentary was filmed over four years in 25 countries around the world across 5 continents by director/cinematographer Ron Fricke. Baraka was Fricke‘s 1992 experimental cinema that covered much of the same territory. Now 20 years later we get this sequel of sorts. The granddaddy of this genre is Koyaanisqatsi (1983) on which Fricke was the cinematographer. Like that picture, time-lapse photography is frequently used to depict a heightened reality of a world we see every day. Scenes quickly unfold before our eyes in a stunning document of events that often take much longer. This is the music video as anthropology. Cultural revelations designed to shock and awe. The images will provoke laughter, tears, disgust and joy. All of this is underscored by a soundtrack featuring ambient music by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard, and Marcello De Francisci.

There is no narrative but there is a point. Samsara is celebration of the environment filtered through an anti-urbanization milieu. Mechanized society is bad. Nature and indigenous cultures are good. Of course what you actually take away from this documentary depends on what you bring to it. The spectacle is ripe for free association by the viewer. Without any narration or story, we are compelled to fill in the blanks and make our own inferences as to how these images relate. No two people are going to have the same experience watching this film. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a tone poem.

At times the exhibition begs for an explanation. Witness men in orange jumpsuits dancing choreography in utter precision to techno music. The production is better than a halftime show, more precise than a Broadway musical. Their exuberance is captivating and their spirit is contagious. The fact that these are prisoners at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines prompts the question: what is going on here? We are never given an answer (or even where this was photographed) it’s simply on to the next display.

The documentary works best when the spectator doesn’t feel as if they’re being manipulated. Hundreds of plucked live chickens being vacuumed up by a thresher like machine is an indelible image that’s hard to shake. It’s an obvious scolding to non vegetarians. “How dare you eat meat! This travesty is your fault.” If it’s possible to gild the lily in a negative way, the filmmakers succeed. We’re presented 3 gargantuan Americans stuffing their faces at a fast food restaurant immediately after. Also for your reflection, are women wearing burqas standing in front an underwear ad of male models in Dubai mall . Their juxtaposition manipulated to highlight the obvious double standard is mildly exploitative. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is contrasted with the Palace of Versailles. And then there’s the random insert of a French performance artist as businessman dressed in suit and tie that aggressively rubs clay and paint all over his face. It doesn’t even fit within the context of the picture. I guess he was showing us what a nervous breakdown looks like. Awkward.

The document thrives when it celebrates our world without judgment. A Symphonic poem, the breathtaking images literally hypnotize the viewer into a trance inducing state. From, religious place of worship like pagodas in Burma and the vaulted ceilings of the Vatican to Muslims circling the Grand Mosque at Mecca. Gorgeous vistas of the sandstone arches of Utah’s Monument Valley to half dome Yosemite Valley. Even the urban cityscapes of Shanghai and Dubai: archive a poetic beauty amongst all the natural wonders. A cityscape at night shows cars zipping along the highway in multicolored electronic glow. Like glowing electronic arteries, the modernity is hypnotic on the big screen. It’s the visual manifestation of a dream and occasionally a nightmare. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Samsara would take a lifetime to read.

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16 Responses to “Samsara”

  1. My only recommendation is, make sure you’re wide awake. Don’t get any noisy snacks, and don’t expect explanations on anything you’ve just seen.

  2. Nice one Mark. I’m a big fan of Koyaanisqatsi and I’ve got Baraka on DVD. I’ve yet to watch it but I’ll be getting hold of this as well. Great to hear that Lisa Gerrard is involved in the music. I love that women’s voice.

  3. Absolutely man. Dead Can Dance are an amazing outfit. I used to have a DVD of one their concerts. I forget the name of it now but it was something like ‘Toward the Within’. I done the same with that. It was never off my tv.

  4. I’ve been trying to find this one in theaters. I loved Baraka, so I really want to see this one. Nice review.

  5. This review is like a poem; so many images danced around my brain. I’m stoked to see it.

    I’ve been meaning to watch “Baraka” since I saw it featured on one of Siskel & Ebert’s episodes but it’s under “Very Long Wait” on Netflix. When I added it, it was immediately available. Darn my timing!

    • I was trying my best to convey how this film made me feel. Your reaction was exactly my intention, so I’m glad you’ll see see it. Baraka is on my “to watch” list as well.

  6. Never heard of this, but now I’m dying to see it.

  7. Very intersting… great review.

  8. Just saw it last night. I enjoyed it, but not as much as Baraka (which you really should see Mark if you haven’t). While I enjoyed it, I thought at times the flow of images was off. We’d be presented with a series of related images, and then BAM, something totally different pops up, and then back to the regular series of images.

    For example, the fast motion sequence of subway riders is interrupted by the image of the freaky looking woman with the mask over her mouth and the crazy multi-colored eyes, and then we are back to looking at the subway. What was that image of that lady, what did that have to do with the rest of that sequence? Was she a subway rider, was she part of that culture? There was nothing to establish her presence.

    This is a little different of your critique of asking for an explanation of the images. Done right, the shots can establish context, so even if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you have an idea of WHY it’s being presented to you. I’m mainly talking about randomly inserted images in sequences that are otherwise connected (final example, the Thousand Arms Dance girls appear for a split second about a 1/4 of the way through the film, but otherwise don’t appear until the end, why bother showing us that split second image so soon then?).

    The movie shares so many similarities with Baraka, from the long shots of people looking directly into the camera (which I think was overdone here compared to the previous film), the mechanizations of food production (which, like the guns/weapons/war sequence outstayed its welcome), to the images of nature (i swear that’s the same tree in the desert that opens and closes Baraka).

    Looking around online it appears that Baraka was edited to go along with the soundtrack, while Samsara was edited first, and then the soundtrack was added to fit the images. I think this created an odd flow.

    Lastly, the only part of the film me and my fellow moviegoers didn’t like was the business man/performance art piece. Everything else in the movie was presented as an observation, whereas this sequence felt like they had specifically directed this person to play to the camera. While the sequence was neat (and by that I mean disturbing as hell), it just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the film.

    Overall, I liked Samsara, but Baraka is superior.

    • It’s not as tranquil as I thought it would be. Occasionally the pleasant images were hijacked by something unpleasant so it was a bit jarring at times. However even that was kind of hypnotic. Your thoughts are very similar to mine. I definitely plan on seeing Baraka soon. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. This was basically a review in itself.

  9. Fantastic review, Mark! Adding this to my list!

  10. Seems like I’m going to need to be extra-high for this one. I kid! I kid! Seriously though, I saw the preview for this and my mind couldn’t totally comprehend what I was seeing so I will definitely have to check this out sooner or later, but when the time is right. Good review Mark. You pretty much sold me on it.

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