In 1982, filmmaker, activist, and former monk Godfrey Reggio released his landmark documentary Koyaanisqatsi. One of the most critically acclaimed films of the ’80s and among the most important documentaries of all time, Koyaanisqatsi created a new cinematic grammar by using nothing more than breathtaking imagery from around the world — oceans, deserts, inner cities, factories — to explore complex philosophical questions about nature, technology, and man’s place in the world.
Its closest descendant might be Dziga Vertov’s experimental 1929 documentary, Man With a Movie Camera. But where Vertov’s film used all manner of outlandish editing and special effects to expand the technological possibilities of visual storytelling for its own sake, Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi used few techniques more complicated than slow motion and time-lapse photography. Instead, Koyaanisqatsi‘s power came primarily from its intellectual use of simple juxtaposition and montage, as well as its spectacular visuals, which are among the most beautiful and iconic ever captured on film. With that one single film, Reggio and his cinematographer Ron Fricke essentially created a whole new genre — the globetrotting, trancelike, non-narrative documentary that operates more like a visual tone poem than a traditional film.
After Koyaanisqatsi‘s stunning success, Reggio went on to direct two more films in a similar vein, creating the Qatsi Trilogy. At the same time the man behind Koyaanisqatsi‘s stunning visuals, cinematographer Ron Fricke, took what he learned from Reggio and Koyaanisqatsi and began directing his own films, expanding the boundaries of the style he helped create and applying his own spiritual and philosophical stamp to it. He used a custom-built 65mm camera to film 1985’s Chronos, which used time-lapse photography to explore human history. Next came 1993’s Baraka, a surprise hit that expanded on Koyaanisqatsi‘s theme of man’s alienation from the natural world.
And now, almost two decades later, comes Samsara. Billed as a sequel of sorts to Baraka, Samsara continues Fricke’s explorations of “total cinema”: film without language, plot, or character, using only images of the incredibly vast diversity of natural landscapes and life found on planet Earth in order to convey mankind’s connection to nature, to spirituality, and to itself. Ron Fricke and his former collaborator Godfrey Reggio are unprecedentedly unique and original cinematic artists, and Samsara stands among Fricke’s finest work as a filmmaker, featuring some of the most heart-stopping and magnificent imagery that this master cinematographer has ever photographed.
From a visual and logistical standpoint, Samsara is a nearly unparalleled achievement. Fricke combines footage from over 100 locations in 25 different countries, spanning five continents and filmed over the course of five years in lush 70mm HD photography. No matter how well travelled you are, or even how well-versed of a moviegoer or National Geographic reader you might be, it’s a safe bet that there are plenty of images in Samsara that most viewers have never seen before. It’s truly a global film, and features some of the most beautiful and diverse images of the natural world ever collected in a single movie.
In 100 minutes we see everything from crowds thronging the Kaaba in Mecca to erupting Hawaiian volcanoes, to the eerie Easter Island-like statues of Mount Nemrut in Turkey, to the surreal interior of a Thai go-go bar. One moment the camera is soaring above the fairytale-like landscape of Myanmar, where temples and pagodas seem to sprout out of the fertile green countryside like mushrooms. Minutes later, the camera is slowly drifting through the sepulchral interiors of ruined buildings in New Orleans’ post-Katrina Ninth Ward. Without narration or a conventional story, the imagery is the main character of a film like Samsara, and as a purely aesthetic experience there are few films that can rival it (and most of the ones that do are directed by either Fricke or Godfrey Reggio).
If Samsara can be criticized for anything, it could be for indulging in occasionally obvious and reductive philosophizing from time to time. While sometimes the various images of Samsara have nothing to do with each other beyond their striking beauty, there are a few moments when an uncharitable viewer could be forgiven for thinking Fricke puts too fine a point on some of his messages about modernity, consumerism, and technology.
He occasionally slips into simplistic and dated ”East-good, West-bad” orientalism, juxtaposing images of noble monks and African natives soulfully gazing at the camera alongside images of repulsive, obese Americans. People from Westernized cultures are frequently presented as mindless, soulless office drones, and are literally likened to robots several times. One particularly crass and unnecessary cheap shot, clearly intended to shock, shows an overweight Wal-Mart shopper stacking jumbo packages of toilet paper in her shopping cart — I suppose Fricke would have us believe that his monks take care of that particular area of hygiene through some kind of immaculate holy incantation or meditation?
Also, the singular is spectacularly and at times frighteningly drowned in images of moving masses of people: from the stark black and white view of the aforementioned crowds in Mecca, viewed from above as a huge, moving organism; to Chinese factory workers become small and automated moving parts in a huge factory; to an enormous gathering of martial arts students moving like soldiers in eerie synchronicity; to soldiers, their individuality uniformly crushed under amazing discipline to something larger than themselves. Indeed, that there is something larger than ourselves amongst us is a constant current moving us swiftly along in this film.
Indeed, despite its mild faults as narrative or issue-based cinema, as a purely sensory experience Fricke and his team have achieved something mesmerizing and exhilarating. Fricke has said that he sees Samsara as a form of guided mediation, and it’s certainly helpful to consider the film as an attempt at achieving a trancelike state. If the juxtapositions of the editing do not always make literal or artistic sense, the simple act of contemplating images of such beauty and power with uninterrupted concentration for an hour and a half can open up an awe-inspiring world of ideas and emotions that aren’t always accessible in other traditional films.
Aside from those few who were lucky enough to see it theatrically in a festival or major market, this recent DVD release by MPI Media Group is the first chance most film fans will have to see this remarkable gem, and they have done an admirable job of packaging and presenting it. The transfer of Fricke’s 70mm photography is crisp, vivid, and absolutely stunning. Also included is an entire second disc of ‘behind the scenes’ footage and interviews with the filmmaking team, which are for the most part fascinating.
Hearing Fricke and his team detail the extraordinary lengths that they went to and the logistical challenges that they dealt with in order to capture Samsara‘s one-of-a-kind footage over the course of the film’s five-year production only adds to the wonder and magic of the final product. Samsara is an exceedingly rare film event, one that is open to endless rewatching, and well worth owning on DVD by anyone capable of being awed by beautiful imagery.