Samsara: A Trip Around the World


In Baraka (1992), director Ron Fricke and writer Mark Magidson team up to reveal to viewers a plethora of strange and unknown pockets of life. It begins in the morning. There are landscapes and people at prayer. The cinematography is striking; we see volcanoes, waterfalls and dense forests. The documentary seems to ebb and flow – there are moments of silence and moments of movement, of rushing water and the low vibration of several hundred monks chanting. Tribes apply body paint and dance. There is no dialogue, text or narration. Instead, we are left to admire the images for what they are. The film then moves to focus on destruction – forests are logged, landscapes are mined. The viewer is confronted with images of poverty, industrialization and war. As it ends, it circles back to new beginning: prayer and nature return.

Nature and man are now often presented as diametrically opposed (there is nature and the man-made; the machine and the hectic urban lifestyle that we associate ‘man’ with). Here, we see them for what they really are: intrinsically linked. Baraka is a beautiful documentary. It can only be described as an awe-inspiring tapestry of human experience and the natural world. The work is long, sometimes tiringly so, but it is also meditative and ultimately inspiring: there is ruin in the world, but wonder and hope too.

This year, Fricke and Magidson release another collaboration: Samsara. It, too, is an overwhelming sensory experience shot exclusively on 70-millimeter film. The title is a Sanskrit word that means ‘the ever-turning wheel of life.’ As expected, it encourages careful, meditative attention to what is shown. Fricke’s camera floats over rivers, oceans and forests, across cultures and continents. There is that same overwhelming feeling of the world being grand and vibrant, but there is a stronger, more forceful message in this new work. If viewers were encouraged to suspend judgment in Baraka, then the opposite is true of Samsara. Fricke’s footage addresses issues of the global economy, the state of the environment and the collisions between industry and nature. We watch chickens and pigs in processing plants reminiscent of snaps from Food Inc., and shots of transvestite prostitutes and sulfur mines invoke what the New York Times calls a “cinematic consciousness-raising.” Despite a more heavy-handed approach, the documentary is still a sensory wonder, folding a wide array of captivating imagery into a steady, organic rhythm.