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Samsara (संसार) is a Sanskrit word meaning the “continuous flow” of birth, life, death and rebirth. Director-cinematographer Ron Fricke’s film of the same name traces this karmic cycle from birth to spiritual transcendence in a “guided meditation” that may well win him and his award-winning team some more trophies -- if not moksha.
Shot over five years in 25 countries, Samsara takes viewers around the world in 99 minutes without so much as a peep. Fans of Fricke’s last wordless globe hop, Baraka, will find much to gawk at in this sequel nearly 20 years later.
Here too Fricke and co-editor Mark Magidson (who also co-wrote the treatment and produced) explore humanity’s relationship with eternity unburdened by conventions of storytelling or character. Sequences of nature versus culture come together across surely some of the most arresting images on Earth. Captured in time-lapse photography and 70mm cinematography, these visual wows are set to the music of Michael Stearns (in collaboration with Lisa Gerrard and Marcello de Francisci).
Fricke first made his name as the cinematographer, co-editor and co-writer of Koyaanisqatsi. Since then he has built a filmography that includes Chronos, Sacred Site and commercials for such brands as Jeep and Nokia. He also filmed Francis Ford Coppola’s HD feature Megalopolis and assisted with the shoot of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
Samsara advances Fricke et al's temporal and spiritual quest. Bracketed by Buddhist monks creating and destroying a sand mandala, the film surveys the planet for other high reckonings: an infant being baptized, Muslim hajjis circling The Kaaba in Mecca and Hasidic Jews praying at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, to name but three.
Apparently there’s much to be reckoned for around the planet. Evidence of violence populates the screen, from a military cemetery to a family grieving over a gun-shaped casket to a munitions factory to rifle-toting African tribesmen and American yahoos.
Some of the most threatening spectacles are those of mass food production and consumption. Viewers may want to take a break from eating fryers after one particularly troubling segment in a chicken factory.
Human flesh is no less subject to commodification: we move from cosmetic surgery to mannequins to vinyl sex dolls to Thai ladyboys to dolls to a Japanese geisha beginning to cry. If humanity’s about to go the way of the dinosaurs, at least we have Samsara to document why.
Fricke and Magidson graciously took time from their life cycles to give voice to some their awe-inducing images and ideas.
Q: How did you reach a balance between light and dark themes?
RF: We wanted to show both sides so there´d be a lot of texture in the film. So for example, with [Olivier] De Sagazon, the French performer with the clay, that was about showing the shadow side of things and parts of you that you don´t want to show other people. He did it in a performance. So he was interesting to watch but yet there was something brutal about it.
We tried to show everything as interestingly and as beautifully as we could even though it was very provocative. And some of those images are the most powerful when they get off what we call "the flow" -- when that flow gets interrupted. You have animals in cages and people in cells and jails and walls that surround religions and dolls that replicate humans. The film is about flow.
Q: Is there a cautionary note here, that we´re heading toward extinction with our abuse of natural resources and attraction to violence?
RF: I think we´re also trying to show the other side, that there are other pathways for humans to transform themselves. It´s up to you. It´s all out there. It´s what you're placing your value on, what you choose to do.
Q: How have your experiences affected your optimism vs pessimism quotient?
MM: Traveling to so many places and seeing just the daunting level of poverty that exists in the world...it is daunting...and that´s somewhat transformative. You feel a deep sense of compassion for the human condition. There is a yearning for connection and we hope that that's what this film ignites: a sense of connection to the phenomenon of life in a non-judgmental way.
Q: "Samsara" refers not just to eternal cycles, but also to worldly activities as they're unfolding now. How were you influenced by this definition?
RF: "Now" was a big theme in Baraka and in this film. The nature of this sort of non-verbal filmmaking does hopefully put you in touch with that.
Q: If you were to include one line of dialogue in the film, what would it be and who would be saying it?
MM: I´d love to give you an answer if I could; if you're looking for one word that would sum it up, I don´t think I [can] because this is an experience that´s meant to be an inner feeling kind of experience.
Q: What's it's like to edit without music or even a script?
RF: We chose a zen approach: no background sounds, no music; just let the images help guide what we were doing and find a flow. They really will begin to tell you, "Well, I like to be here; I don't like to be there." This is how we would form a block of content and then another one, and later we were able to string the blocks together and begin to see the film appear.
It's not as easy as it looks because when you put two, three, four images together, they want to say something, either about this that's good or bad or some kind of comment on it. And we tried to steer it away from that, just keep it down the middle -- the flow -- so we could take you on this guided meditation.
MM: You have to get to know the totality of all the imagery that you have when you're done filming and feel how that works together. So we do these blocks. But there are ways these blocks connect together that you couldn´t have written ahead of time because it's about the reality of the imagery that you bring back. So the editing process is intuitive that way.
Q: For a specific example, what inspired you to cut from a Himba tribeswoman to an L.A. freeway?
MM: Part of the reason that cut worked content-wise...is that they're both shot in late afternoon light so the shots match. And then she looks so contemporary. Her face is so ambiguous even though she's in a very remote part of the Angolan-Namibian border that we had to take two puddle jumper little planes to get to way out there. She feels like you could have seen her in L.A. Those are the kinds of cuts you can't plan on. You can't storyboard or script that -- you have to be open to it.
RF: She has just transported you to another place. She gave us such a great look.
Q: She's in good company throughout the film. What were you going for in having people stare at the camera?
RF: That was a theme set up by Tut's Death Mask [in the prologue]. It's just the most beautiful art object you will ever see. His eyes -- it's really eternity he's staring at: your soul. So all of the portraits were staring back at you and into the camera as if we're all connected. That was the idea -- birth, death and then rebirth...
Q: What's next for you guys?
RF: It's a big world and there are countries that got away, like North Korea. They have just a wonderful thing they do called arirang around a mass performance. It's like Busby Berkeley on steriods. It's thousands of people performing. We just haven't seen it in the West.
But first I'd take a little break...
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