★★★ / ★★★★
Without the crutch of narration, dialogue, or subtitles, “Samsara” parades wave after wave of beautiful and curious images from across continents, cultures, and lifestyles. Yet although it ensnares us visually, it creates a spiritual experience in that it inspires the viewer to look within and question why specific images invoke certain emotions.
For instance, images that resonated with me most are those of dead bodies: mummified, fragile, empty. They are not scary, disgusting, or deformed, as they so often tend to look in horror films, but peaceful. There is a silent elegance and grace about them. As I stared at the former vessels on screen, I looked down at my own arms and hands. I noticed their color, where hairs are placed, the veins underneath the skin. It moved me because I was reminded of my own mortality—that eventually this body I inhabit will degrade and wither.
This is one of many examples that Ron Frickle’s documentary offers. “Samsara” is a Tibetan word for “the wheel of life,” and it is the theme that runs across the veins of its disparate but rich portraits. Notably, the middle section veers away from shots of nature and tribes who live in isolation. Instead, the focus is shifted toward our increasingly industrialized world, how impersonal and automated it has become, both the tools we employ to get the job done and how we are with one another. Still, however, the director is not interested in judgment. He simply captures the images, the truth regarding what is and where we might be heading as a society, and it is up to the viewer to extract an interpretation.
Visiting numerous exotic locales triggers a sense of wonder, from deep orange deserts to jagged icy mountains with streams slashing through them. Even if a person just so happens to have seen such places in person, the use of time lapse photography provides a new way to marvel at these wonders. For example, a statue of a giant face looks entirely different during the night than it does during daytime. When the sun sets, shadows thicken the statue’s brows and it creates an ominous feeling. When the sun rises, its countenance is welcoming, full of wisdom. We note its subtle colors, textures, crevices. Notice, too, that when time lapse is used when the focus is on majestic landscapes, shadows are slowly pulled back like blankets, revealing hidden details to admire and appreciate.
Some might note an apparent lack of flow as it jumps from one set of images to another. For instance, a few seconds in the sulfur mines of Indonesia is immediately followed by a marketplace in Africa. I enjoyed that at times it requires work to find the connective tissues. In this case, note how the camera focuses on the back of the sulfur carriers, some of them sporting wounds and callouses. Jumping to the marketplace, notice how women are carrying children on their backs. To me, the connecting idea is that the work being done, even or especially in dangerous conditions, is for the sake of supporting life, a family, the next generation. While it may take a bit of getting used to, it is not difficult to make these connections when the viewer adapts to the rhythm of this beguiling documentary.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Ron Frickle’s documentary takes us across the world and puts the spotlight on unique, enthralling, and curious images of people, landscapes, animals, lifestyles, and the synergy among them. One of its most notable features is the lack of narration. It utilizes music to establish a mood and inspires us think for ourselves what we think is being communicated.
Its images are already so alive during the opening shots, we could almost hear and feel the icy mountains breathe. It is a litmus test of the effort and talent from behind the camera when the device itself is relatively still and yet the details it captures can be described in a thousand words. Although I admired the crevices, slopes, and sheer majesty of the scenery, I could not help but turn inwards. I wondered if people have hiked through the labyrinthine heights and if they ever made it out alive or in one piece. I thought about the ancient people that used to live there and whether there was a possibility that there are people living there that modern society do not know about.
The sequencing of the images draw a handful of fascinating parallels. Most memorable is the way chicks are handled in a factory, by machines and workers, and the intercutting of images of crowds in metropolitan areas. The editing is quick and to the point without losing track of flow that maintains a mood. Time-lapse and real-time techniques are expertly controlled to overwhelm and slow down which forms a steady rhythm of urgency and rumination. Similar attributes can be observed in the shots between a certain type of housing in developing countries and cemeteries.
I have a keen eye when a camera focuses on faces. In a lot of movies, when a close-up is employed, the most common qualities filmmakers wish to highlight is emotion, beauty, and intention. Instead, here the director underlines the essence of a people’s culture and, in a way, reevaluates the concept of beauty. Although faces are front and center, we are given a chance to appreciate the art of what is drawn or painted over them. What are the different colors supposed to symbolize? Why do the children have slightly different patterns compared to the adults? What is being celebrated: a communion, a wedding, a prayer?
Many people might say that “Baraka” belongs to be shown in museums. On the contrary, I think it deserves to be shown in classrooms across the world because it showcases the idea that life and beauty is all around, that there are infinite things to look forward to and experience. “Where is this part of the world?” is the question that often sprouted in my head during the first twenty minutes. Eventually, it ceased to matter because my eyes and brain have begun to waltz. I felt a tinge of sadness, too. By seeing so much, I was reminded of the many things I will never get to see in my lifetime. And then I started to feel glad that the film is rich enough for repeated viewings so we can always discover something new.