Samsara 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.