Samsara (Ron Fricke – USA) 102 minutes
I have a soft spot for Ron Fricke’s 1993 film Baraka as it marked the beginning of my adult cinephilia, being the first film I went to see upon moving to Dublin for college that year. It didn’t exactly spark my interest in cinema – I was already determined to go to the movies two to three times a week once I hit college – but it was the film that most grabbed my attention that particular week. Twenty-years and thousands of trips to the cinema later, Fricke and producer Mark Magidson are back with Samsara, a film that might, in a loose sense, be considered a sequel, or, failing that, a companion piece.
The style and format of Baraka are unchanged – Samsara is a documentary of sorts without any commentary or dialogue, with long, sumptuously lit, wordless observations of landscapes and peoples from around the world. It must be said though that Fricke doesn’t focus quite so much this time on people. What is unchanged from Baraka is the film’s Orientalism – Fricke obviously sees Asia (and, to a lesser extent, Africa) as giving great mileage in terms of Otherness, be it an inner spiritual purity or, equally importantly, mass. The opening sequence of the 1000-hand dance or the Buddhist monks of Thikse Monastery in India constructing a Mandala provide us with the spiritual core that, it seems Westerners are incapable of mustering. Scenes of desolation on a rubbish dump in Manila denote the noble savagery of the lives of the world’s poorest, while the now-famous choreographed dances of the Cebu Detention Centre's orange-clad inmates give the collective ballast to a film that just loves patterns, especially ones that go on for as far as the eye can see. (The inmates’ choreography has always struck me, not a bit uncomfortably, as an apt metaphor for the coercion inherent in elaborate dance routines).
China is the biggest hitter in this medley of mass and grace for Fricke – it is capable of extraordinary beauty (the afore-mentioned dance) but also despairing mundanity, witnessed in the scenes of Chinese workers in their factories. Fricke is no doubt fearful of the inevitable erosion of the Chinese soul, though the worst thing that industrialisation can bring about for him is probably making the Chinese more like the West. And Westerners, for Fricke, exist only as commuters, to be portrayed as ants on the São Paulo Metro, or as dumb consumers of fast food, or uncompromising gun nuts, as seen in one scene of an American family glaring at the camera, armed to the teeth. (Throughout the film any human contact with the camera is captured solely in this Steve McCurry-esque glare.) Of course Fricke could find plenty of poverty-stricken people in the West but it might be just a little hard to square with his idealised view of spiritual richness among the misery.
He could also find spirituality in the West but the places of worship he shows – Sainte chapelle in Paris and the Sistine Chapel – are unpeopled and of interest to him only for their scale and splendour. In reality, the built environment doesn’t interest him too much – as with much else in the film, it just provides scale and mass. Fricke hammers home the point far too often, using, as he did in Baraka, time-lapse photography to turn the passing of time into spatial quantity. Time-lapse is a rather dull-edge with which to make a point, seeing as it is now the method of choice for any budding filmmaker with the equipment and a Vimeo account but nothing to say. For all Fricke’s efforts to invest his images with some greater import, his editing pulls the intellectual rug from under him.
Fricke and Magidson said they didn’t want to make a political point in the film, which is a bit like those people you know who say they are not very interested in politics, but will cast their vote unfailingly for right-wing parties. Whatever the filmmakers' intention there is an activist bent to their film, and its a fuzzy, self-righteous one, not unlike that of dim-witted people who share preachy jpgs on Facebook from pages that invariably have the word ‘truth’ in their title. Fricke and Magidson are equally convinced they are on to something that few others are capable of seeing. The reality is there are people that do most of what they attempt in the film far better and more intelligently, from Werner Herzog to Austrian documentarist Nikolaus Geyrhalter and Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, not to mention countless jobbing National Geographic filmmakers. That’s not to say Samsara can’t be enjoyed – it is visually stunning and the 70mm photography is probably even better than in Baraka, giving it a pleasing coffee-table-book appeal. Though Fricke can record some fantastic images – the scenes of devastation in New Orleans post-Katrina in particular – Samsara is a feast for the eyes but, alas, a famine for the mind.
SAMSARA Theatrical Trailer from Baraka & Samsara on Vimeo.