So it’s surprising that I found myself at the opening weekend of Samsara, the new movie from the creators of the canonical, Baraka. If ever any movie were to attract a sea of breath-cathers, this would be it. However, it was an unmissable opportunity: humongous screen, 5 years in the making, 70mm film footage, 25 countries, and the artists on hand for a Q&A afterwards.
It’s visually stunning. It’s never-before-captured footage of holy rituals, like the Hajj from nearly 2,000 ft in the air. It’s technically meticulous, with the smoothest of camera panning and pushing all while shooting a time lapsed sequence.
It’s also infuriating.
Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson clearly have enormous talent. Who else has gotten this access? Who else would come away with the same images? But it’s been squandered.
We cut from households on the manmade islands of Dubai to people scavenging for food in the landfills of Manilla. We follow the flow of weapons from bullet factories to a man buried in a casket the shape of a gun. And there’s this machine at a factory farm that sucks up chickens as they cluck with panic and try to run away.
Their images have an astounding potential to move people, to leave us unsatisfied with the way that we humans treat each other. However, all they do with the images is create what Fricke calls “a guided meditation on the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.”
That’s problematic. By instructing us to use his images to meditate, Fricke wraps up all of the poignantly recorded suffering into a neat, pretty packages. We’re free to view them without having to dwell on their complete significance. We are absolved from the need to take action.
When asked to describe their own reactions to the footage and comment on the huge disparities that they witnessed, Fricke notes that he’s grateful for the life that he has. Michael Stearns, the composer for the film, comments that Magidson has very strong opinions on the matter but after several away-from-the-microphone comments that none of us can hear, all Magidson can produce is, “There is extreme poverty in this world.”
Maybe it’s that they’re scared of being construed as political. Maybe the only way that they can get access is by remaining neutral observers only interested in meditating. I’ll always be curious what Magidson said off microphone. Regardless, by the end of the Q&A session, one gets the impression that Fricke and Magidson are simply visual tourists with extreme talent and an interest in the spiritual. I can’t help but wonder if some of the subjects of the film might feel exploited to have their suffering recorded for the sole purpose of helping two rich, white guys meditate.
Fricke and Magidson obviously recognize that compelling images require more than just visual beauty. Most of their images are striking only because of the heartbreaking juxtapositions that they present. For example, there’s a portrait of what appears to be a family holding their guns. In the center is a young girl with a pink rifle. An obvious interpretation screams at the viewer. The young girl and the color pink is supposed to represent innocence and youth which is contrasted with a gun which is represents violence and death. It’s a comment on the extreme level of armament of society today. But if viewers of this film are truly supposed to meditate only on “flow,” then it’s not a profound statement at all, it’s just a gimmick to create a charged visual.
A tear drops from a Geisha’s eye. It begs us to consider the price that some us must pay for the luxury of others. Initially moving, it’s all too appropriate and disappointing when Fricke explains that the tear was from the lighting, her heavy make-up, and the instruction “don’t blink.” One begins to wonder how much substance is behind Fricke and Magidson.
Even as artists, a re-watching of Baraka, does make you wonder if they’re just repeating previous victories. At one point an audience member asked how they decided to reuse footage and why. Fricke visibly bristles and states that they didn’t reuse footage from Baraka. Yet he does admit, “We just can’t seem to stay out of the Vatican.”
Some of the footage is so similar that it might as well have been reused. Both movies have footage of Mecca, of Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall, volcanoes, the Vatican, the Tokyo subway, the Egyptian pyramids, factories on fast forward, industrial farms, and starry night time-lapses. In such a beautiful and complex world, how could it be that things are repeated?
Ultimately it’s fitting that Fricke and Magidson fall short of perfection. Talent aside, they’re only human and thus capable of the same majestic heights and disappointing flaws that are portrayed in their film. In many Buddhist teachings, Samsara is more than simply the cycle of reincarnation, but the world of suffering that we are trapped in before we attain Nirvana. As my friend put it, “It’s like they’re stuck in their own little Samsara.”
But perhaps that’s too harsh - they’re only filming what we’ve all participated in creating. As Fricke takes great pains to illustrate, we’re all connected: this is our collective Samsara.
At the very least, the film’s gorgeous and nonverbal medium is powerful enough to create messages that transcend the filmmakers’ intentions. Go see the film, but please, do these images justice. Do more than just meditate and passively experience. Be inspired to do something about it.