Ron Fricke’s latest documentary has a fitting title in Samsara, which can be roughly defined as the constant repeating cycle of death and rebirth to which the physical world is eternally bound. However, it may as well be called Baraka 2, because the film is essentially a sequel/remake to the director’s beloved 1992 image collage. That’s not a bad thing. Filming in 70mm and touring 25 countries around the world, Fricke has created another epic work of visual poetry that combines and contrasts evocative images with alternatively pulsing and meditative music in an attempt to encompass the vast beauty and horror of life on this planet. Now, that’s a bit of a hippy-dippy theme impossible to fully encompass in 102 minutes and inevitably some will complain the movie is a case of aesthetic over substance and a sadly redundant retread of a past glory for the filmmaker. Both criticisms are fair and not unfounded, but when trapped in a theater admiring the sheer big screen beauty of what Fricke accomplished, it’s hard for those thoughts to cross your mind. This is more of a movie to be experienced than analyzed and it’s a gorgeous accomplishment.
Devoid of anything resembling a narrative, Samsara is a difficult movie to summarize or describe as it is more a college of imagery than anything else. But I shall try (it is my job damnit). The film starts in nature and in tribal or religion driven traditional societies that feel unstuck stuck in time. Slow and thoughtful, this section has somewhat of a spiritual feeling difficult to pin down. Eventually Fricke moves onto America and Japan, filming vast urban spaces overflowing with people and technology. Timelapse photography of factory workers has a dehumanizing quality to make people feel more like cogs in a machine, while disturbing footage of meat processing plants reduces animals to commercial products. Technology becomes a subject as well, with grand images of computers being constructed along with disturbing images of real doll bodies without heads that turn even the human form into a commodity. Eventually Fricke brings the film back to nature and his presentation of that world feels more like the natural order than any of the imposing man made structures that he shoots.
Form is as much the content of the movie as any of the specific subjects. The cinematographer-turned-director’s 70mm frames are filled with details designed to get lost in. By removing all context for these images aside from how they reflect or interact with each other, there’s a peculiar beauty to be found in a tree stump or horror to be found in a sprawling metropolis. The film gets a rhythm through editing and music, with long lingering slow motion photography combined with slow lyrical scores and high-speed timelapse imagery playing over pounding modern compositions. The effect of both techniques is visceral and at times Samsara (much like Baraka) can almost feel like the documentary equivalent of a Busby-Berkeley musical or a Michel Gondry music video. Give yourself over to Fickle’s moving audio-visual landscape and it’s all too easy to be hypnotized by the material.
Now, all that makes the movie sound somewhat pretentious, which it both is and isn’t. Yes, there’s an element to which the movie is designed as a tone poem about the interconnectedness of life. I suppose with an enough coffee and undergrad philosophy textbooks under your belt, there’s material here to spark like totally deep discussions, man. That’s all valid, yet at the same time somewhat fruitless. It’s not like there’s a specific thesis here, Fricke is more interested in the emotions and ideas he can create through the images. Personally, I find the value of a movie like Samsara to be one of pure aesthetic wonderment. It’s almost like a compilation of all of the most stunning footage from BBC’s Planet Earth with all that boring scientific chatter/context removed. It’s pure sensory experience of all that’s beautiful and horrible about the world at the moment. That’s certainly an experience worth having, particularly for a culture who derives so much of their experience through recorded images.
The only movies that you can really compare Samsara to are Fricke’s own Baraka and Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy (the first unpronounceable chapter of which featured Fricke as cinematographer). The trouble with that is that essentially these movies are all the same. You can only do and say so much with a worldwide collage movie like this and it’s arguable that the movies never improved on the original Koyaanisqatsi. The thing is that these movies are so beautiful to watch and there is so much material that can be mined for them, that diving back into that same world again every few years still has it’s charms. Samsara is certainly a movie experience unlike any other currently playing in multiplexes and should please the target audiences of environmentalists, art school majors, budding cinematographers, new age gurus, movie buffs, perpetual backpackers, and recreational drug users. If you fall into one of those categories and enjoy Baraka, there’s no reason to skip this unofficial sequel. You’ll get more of the same, in the best possible sense.