Cinema Review: Samsara

DIR: Ron Fricke

In case you haven’t noticed, we live in a beautiful, enormous world, and for the last 110 years we have had at our disposal the technology to capture its beauty in motion. The makers of Samsara are people who understand that in its simplest form, cinema is a visual medium that can reveal to viewers the image of anything that exists. So they have some lofty ambitions to begin with, that’s for sure.

Ron Fricke is responsible for the two most important works of ‘the world as it is’ cinema of the last 30 years as cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi and director of Baraka, to which Samsara is a spiritual successor. Coming a full 20 years after BarakaSamsara follows the same concept of juxtaposing imagery of the old, the new, and the timeless, scored by various genres of music, from tribal to drum & bass. It’s hard to describe to the uninitiated, but imagine touring the entire world in 90 minutes, stopping occasionally on your hurricane voyage to inspect the faces of strangers from the furthest corners of the Earth. Samsara is an adventure where you are an omnipotent explorer.

Shot in 25 countries over four years entirely with 70mm film stock, there are too many highlights to list here. Amongst them are throngs of Muslims circling the Grand Mosque at Mecca filmed at high-speed, the camera sailing over endless sand dunes, Tibetan monks slowly creating a vastly detailed, floor-sized artwork out of coloured grains of sand, and a heavily choreographed prison dance number.

Samsara’s seemingly endless array of images and ideas never ceases to boggle the mind; however, the film shows a curious bias towards imagery from Asia, with South America and Australia unnoticed and Europe represented by its cathedrals alone. In this way, Fricke and co. seem to undermine their own message, or at least the sensation that message is meant to evoke.

The film’s most memorable (and, by extension, troubling) sequence is a piece of performance art by a man dressed as a typical Western businessman who, sitting at his desk, enters into a tribalistic frenzy, painting himself with ink, paste and items of stationary as if in an aboriginal ritual. What it says about mankind’s rise from ‘savagery’ to ‘civilisation’ is clear, but its staginess clashes frustratingly with the ‘world as it is’ feel of the entire film.

But with that one curious exception, the juxtaposition of images continues to impress. The film takes an extended trip through the Uncanny Valley, showing frighteningly lifelike android heads and heavily detailed synthetic sex dolls. Images of obscure African tribesmen are echoed superbly in the extremes of Japan’s youth subcultures. Shanghai’s slums are seen with tacky, towering skyscrapers in the distance.

What disappoints most about Samsara is how little it builds upon Baraka and how the world has changed in the 20 years since. There are glimpses of technological advancement – the aforementioned robot tech, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, a block of trash made entirely of discarded circuit boards – but many of the speeding cityscapes and all of the historic and natural landmarks could have been shot back in the early ‘90s. The most dramatic shift in day-to-day human life, the ease of access to information through technology, is represented in only one shot – bored New Yorkers glued to their mobile phones (and one to an iPad) as they ride exercise bikes at a gym. The image speaks volumes, but it is one of a small few that can answer the question ‘why now?’ with regards this film.

Where Samsara really calls back to Baraka is in extending the latter’s most infamous sequence, which saw hordes of tiny chicks pouring down a cascading series of conveyer belts to begin a terrifying life of claustrophobic captivity. Here the food process is seen in greater, more distressing detail, as adult chickens are hoovered back up a conveyer belt to a fate on a hook, cows are seen living their lives on what is little more than an enormous roulette wheel, and pig meat is stripped and sawn into pieces for distribution. Its message is important, but with these added grotesqueries it says little more than Baraka said with its hapless, tragic chicks.

Samsara is at times too heavy-handed with its messages, at others too obscure. But while it is overall more mournful in its tone than Baraka was, it is no less mesmerising. Sit back and enjoy as it makes gentle love to your eyeballs. Everything else in your day is going to look far less magical by comparison.

David Neary

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)

Samsara is released on 31st August 2012

Samsara – Official Website



JDIFF 2012 Out of the Past: Baraka,1992

Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012

Out of the Past: Baraka

Saturday, 25th February, 1:00pm, Cineworld

Although not blatant and certainly not hamstrung by an imposed agenda beyond that of the viewer’s own reactions, Ron Fricke’s enduring documentary still tells a story of sorts. Its narrative arc lies in the development of our planet and it charts a world which in the early stages is untouched by man before then detailing a wide array of different cultures and their impact before finally turning skyward to loftier, less earthbound concerns.

While abstract and obtuse in its execution the film is quite approachable as the images offered are often beautiful tableaux. It is crisply shot with a vibrancy that benefits the diverse tones and textures of the journey. A lack of framing device or voiceover lets us bring our own sensibilities to the piece and I do believe it’s this lack of structure that accounts for Baraka’s legacy. A voiceover or a framing device would have hemmed in the film and forced the hand of its filmmakers to arrive at some trite point, the whole planet and civilisation boiled down into some weary soundbite. One can comment on and condemn human atrocities such as concentration camps without lecturing, and in a world where talking head documentaries manipulate an audience so condescendingly it is refreshing to see such broad strokes used to subtle effect.

It is obvious that Fricke honed his skills as a cinematographer on a similar style of films the Qatsi trilogy, directed by Godfrey Reggio, and this is his chance to personally tackle large issues in a way only cinema can. The term visual poetry has become overused but some of the beats here definitely flow with a rhythm one scene involving a colossal bell is a compelling moment. Photography comes close to this pursuit of capturing the world. However a picture is only the tease of an event but seeing a communal tribal chant for example in its full glory needs motion. It needs sound.

When focused on people and their rituals the film casts its spell admirably but as breathtaking as landscapes can be the novelty of seeing a volcano can wear off surprisingly quickly and long shots of that nature when overdone has always rankled me as something almost predictably art house. Baraka does fall into that trap but rarely as the cumulative effect of the visuals does satisfy on both an emotional and aesthetic level. With its sequel having just been released in Samsara it is time to revisit this and while it can only hint at this planet’s infancy and the future it would be interesting to see how far the filmmaker Ron Fricke has himself matured in the interim and to contrast his views on nature and technology in a time when the latter is more prevalent than ever.

Emmet O’Brien