Each year, particularly throughout the Summer, Hollywood churns out big blockbuster films. They’re usually quite formulaic, loaded with movie stars, rich in imagery and special effects, often short on plot, clever dialogue, or originality. They often make a nice profit, but they’re usually forgotten until a sequel or spinoff comes out a few years later. I’m unashamedly guilty of catching a number of such films because I want to experience them on the big screen with the big sound and going to a movie in a theater is an experience in and of itself that I’ve come to appreciate. As the Summer of 2012’s lineup comes to a close there is one big film left that I feel is a must-see, and particularly a must-see in a theater. The film is Samsara and it is not a Hollywood blockbuster; however, the scale and scope of it is above and beyond its blockbuster friends.
“Samsara” is Directed by Ron Fricke and Produced by Mark Magidson. The duo pushed the capabilities of IMAX cameras and time-lapse photography forward with 1985’s stunning Chronos and teamed up again to release the critically acclaimed non-narrative, 70mm film, Baraka (1992). Samsara is a followup to Baraka (although it stands on its own as well), shot in a similar fashion and similar scale; Fricke and Magidson traveled to 25 countries on 5 continents and filmed over the course of 5 years to capture the images that comprise the 99-minute Samsara. All of these statistics make it even slightly more ambitious than Baraka and that’s no small task. I’m in awe of the filmmakers’ commitment to bring their vision to us. “You’ve got to make space for these films in your life,” explains Magidson. “They take up a lot of life energy.” That also explains the twenty-year gap between Baraka and Samsara.
Samsara, like Baraka, has no words or dialogue. It’s driven by fluid movements or conversely static images, with occasional time-lapse to mix it up, the Super 70mm Panavision camera always placed perfectly by photographer Fricke, meshed with a beautiful original score composed by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard, and Marcello De Francisci. Fricke says, “Half of this type of filmmaking is the music. It’s 50/50. The music embellishes the experience with feeling – it’s the dialogue, but it’s in a feeling form.” The music and editing guide the picture on a journey around the world.
I sat down with Fricke and Magidson (see the video below) to ask them more about their films and their friendship. It became even more obvious that they share a passion for making art and they’re not afraid to push the boundaries of cinema, in fact, they build or modify nearly all of the equipment they use to capture their footage. Combine that with the large format that they shot Samsara on (Super 70mm, more than 3x the real estate of typical 35mm we’re more used to) and it all comes together to bring the viewer to new territory. Shooting on 70mm ensures the images will look good no matter how you watch them. When Samsara hits limited theaters, starting August 24th in New York City and Seattle, 4K digital projection will be ideal, but it will look good in 2K, in 1080p BluRay, and you can bet any other format that comes out for years to come. “The quality of that negative ends up in the digital file,” explains Magidson.
You will undoubtedly experience varied emotions when you view Samsara. Not all of Samsara is beautiful images, in fact a chunk of it is downright sad and even somewhat angering, but thankfully there’s no overt commentary or politicking involved, just a presentation for you to reflect on. At minimum, you will experience wonder when viewing Samsara. And you will likely need time to decompress afterwards.
On several occasions in my interview with Fricke and Magidson, Fricke talks about “the flow.” The flow is ultimately what Samsara is about and the word “Samsara” is actually a Sanskrit word that means “the ever turning wheel of life.” Fricke uses a description he’s heard before to analogize, “You could say life invited all of us to this mud-ball that’s floating in space and life didn’t ask any of us to approve of the guest list.” Clever editing helps highlight this when a portrait of a tribal woman in Africa cuts to the freeways and concrete jungle of Los Angeles from above. A lifelike robot mimicking its creator leads to lifelike sex dolls nearly assembled. Factory workers churn out electronics and then kids pick through the waste from these same electronics in a dump while recycling occurs in grand fashion in California. A family of three with a combined weight easily over 1,000 pounds scarfs down fast food and then we see people preparing for plastic surgery and fat-removing surgery. There are recorded performances whose subjects that have since become better-known thanks in part to the YouTube era – choreographed numbers by prisoners in a correctional facility in the Philippines and a surprising performance piece, that of Olivier De Sagazan, making his own commentary with a shocking show involving clay, paint, hair, powder, and newspaper all covering his face to make new face after new face. The film opens with intriguing Balinese girls moving their heads and bodies in a calculated and beautiful fashion. Another striking performance is that of the 1,000 Hand Goddess Dancers in Beijing, China.
Seeing the way people around the world live at this time is one of the most incredible parts of Samsara, as it was for me the first time I saw Baraka or 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi, which Fricke also photographed. Equally awe-inspiring is the varied landscapes of our planet. There’s no doubt the Mars rover Curiosity will return some amazing images of another planet to us humans but we mustn’t forget the incredible images that exist on our own planet- ruins, Dubai’s ever-changing skyline, the energy surrounding the Kaaba in Mecca, immense waterfalls, sand dunes, rock formations, volcanoes erupting, it’s all presented as if a National Geographic magazine came to life.
Whatever you draw from Samsara, you are right. The camera does not judge and with the music only adding to the images you will be taken on a guided meditation that you won’t see in any of the blockbusters of this Summer’s lineup.
For more info, check out www.barakasamsara.com