"Samsara": A Cinematic Meditation
Two decades after rewriting the language of documentary filmmaking in the groundbreaking Baraka, director Ron Fricke and writer-producer Mark Magidson are adding the next chapter with Samsara. After a series of film festival premieres, it’s now arriving in theaters.
Shot on 70-mm film, capturing cycles of nature and rhythms of urban life and destruction with time-lapse photography, 1992’s Baraka was a cinematic landmark. The filmmakers worked without words or narration to illustrate Baraka — a word encompassing meanings from “blessing” to “breath of life” in Hebrew and Arabic languages.
Atmospheric music accompanied Baraka’s portraits of children, spiritual seekers, and the spectrum of human beings in between. It filled the screen with panoramas of remote jungles, pristine canyons, World Heritage Sites, clogged cities, and mass-produced consumerism. It spanned ancient rituals and modern wars to offer a lesson both inspiring and cautionary about becoming more mindful about the planet we live on.
“Samsara is a different film, made 20 years later,” said Magidson on the eve of the Maui Film Festival, where he and Fricke received the 2012 Soul in Cinema Award. Its title is a Sanskrit word echoed in Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Eastern religions. “It means birth, death, rebirth … the endless cycle of life,” he explained.
“Samsara’s not in a form that could be a sequel or picks up where Baraka left off. Obviously, the subject matter is different. It’s more contemporary. It’s denser. There are quite a few more locations.”
Audiences have to adjust to this new cinematic language: It isn’t storytelling — it’s immersion. The film’s subject matter comes from a vast array of world cultures — its “cast” includes exotic temple dancers and nameless factory workers in mindless repetition. It celebrates unspoiled scenes of nature; it ponders humans’ impact on the planet.
What the two films have in common, said Magidson, “is that we’re trying with nonverbal images to transmit a feeling, rather than some data or information.”
Filming Samsara over five years in 25 countries, he explains, “We’re not coming from one religious perspective.” Despite the title’s deep foundations in Eastern thought, the filmmakers are more interested in the search for divine meaning shared by all faiths. Fricke has described his films as “guided meditations.” As cinematographer on 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi, he worked under visionary director Godfrey Reggio. In his youth, Reggio had spent 14 years preparing to become a monk before turning to experimental filmmaking. Tapping into the dawning environmental awareness of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Reggio pioneered a cinematic style that used music rather than words to intertwine natural and powerful spiritual themes through spectacular imagery.
Magidson came aboard in 1985 as executive producer of Fricke’s 43-minute documentary, Chronos. Magidson had previously been a successful inventor and industrial designer; the development of new cameras and equipment would become another signature of their work, along with the jaw-dropping IMAX images they produced.
“Interconnectedness is a word we use all the time,” Magidson said to explain how one scene leads to the next. Impermanence is another common thread. “We’re going to these different locations and editing together ways they’re connected.”
Working with a crew of four or five, and lots of equipment, they essentially turn the filmmaking process upside down and backwards. With Baraka, they started with a relatively detailed shooting script, known as a treatment, which had to be amended considerably, or ignored, once they got in the field. That gave them the confidence on Samsara to use the treatment more as a sort of roadmap. They begin with subjects, themes: “We had manufacturing, we had organic images, images of people in prayer. There are city sequences . . . portraits . . . performances.
“We bring the material back and edit it into sequences, then put the sequences together. You can only make the film from the end. There are all these good opportunities for intercutting or connecting the material together in ways you couldn’t possibly have written.” “You want to find imagery that’s spectacular. People have seen a lot on YouTube and in media. It’s a high bar to find material that’s stunning and new looking,” said Magidson.
Logistics are always a gamble. “We have a fair amount of equipment, and it’s hard to get in and out. Hopefully your batting average is pretty high; sometimes it’s not, and sometimes there are happy surprises.”
For Baraka, they ventured to the Big Island of Hawaii hoping to capture the 1991 solar eclipse. Challenged by overcast weather, Hawaii production coordinator Barry Rivers — now director of the Maui Film Festival — got them to the roof of their hotel, one of the few spots with an unobstructed view, just in time to record what would become the film’s signal image. “It was the first time I felt like I was on a planet in the solar system,” Rivers recalled.
For Samsara, they envisioned images of lava to symbolize rebirth. Hawaii videographer Mick Kalber, a veteran shooter of Kilauea eruptions, became their eyes on the ground. “I said, ‘Keep an eye out when it’s going off,’” Magidson recalled. “About a year later, he said, ‘Hey, it’s looking really good right now. Come on over.’ We happened to be here, so we got on a plane the next day, got it and left.” For Samsara, their shooting ration was around 11 to 1 — 21 hours of footage for a run time of 1:47.
Asked which memories stand out, he ventured, “There were a lot of wonderful experiences, but you remember mostly the hard, hot moments that were really tough shoots.”
The cinematic subject matter lends itself to metaphysical musings, but Magidson avoids easy generalizations. “It is difficult to talk about it in a way that doesn’t sound too self-important,” he admitted. “I always struggle with that, because you are trying to illuminate an inner connection between humanity and the eternal. There’s a lot of human need and desire for that connection, even sometimes when people aren’t aware of it. But it’s a mixed bag. One of the things you pick up from traveling to 25 countries is that everyone is experiencing life in a very different way.”
“I don’t know that we’re commenting on what’s good and what’s bad,” he concluded. “We visited a number of indigenous tribes that are quite remote, and they’re very hungry for technology. That’s something some people would find disturbing. In a lot of these areas, there’s a dire need for Western medicine; in the absence of it, the lifespans are not long. It’s hard to pick and choose and say which Western technology is good and bad and appropriate. And what might be withheld. It’s not for us to say they shouldn’t do that.”
Without words, they’ll let Samsara speak for itself.