Director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson follow up Baraka with Samsara, a self-described visual meditation of human spirituality and experience.
Breathtaking is not a word I use often, but Samsara is undeniably so. What we see in this stunning montage are rituals and traditions that rule lives, and they are beautiful and terrifying.
The first sequence of this near-undefinable work of art disturbed me. A group of girls of indeterminate age perform a dance. I was unsettled by their rehearsed body language, the eerie David Lynch-like ambience, by their disciplined and unflinching stares, but the camera lingers on their stares and ultimately makes me question my own feelings. Why am I unsettled? Why do I feel this way in response to the imagery shown? I realise the power of this film, to make the viewer engage philosophically and intellectually with the subject matter. I realise that the unknown is scary. It can also be exhilarating.
There are things and places shown that I could not believe existed until Samsara showed me they really do. Filmed in twenty five countries over a period of almost five years, four continents are captured on 70mm film. From hidden valleys to arid deserts to urban sprawls, and all the different populations who live their lives within them.
It’s difficult to define the film. It’s not exactly a documentary. There is no voice over, no labels, no text, and so this means there is no narrative and no countries defined by any signifiers other than the visuals. Countries come and go. This is about culture, about planet Earth. It should be shown in schools to inspire kids, to show them we are a global community. Just edit out the part where a businessman goes insane and turns into the Scarecrow. (trust me, you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it)
There is rarely any connecting theme between each sequence, and when there is it’s usually very tenuous. The theme is an overall one, derived from the name of the film. The cycle of life and death.
We see industry, religion, lifestyle, leisure, warfare. The manufacture of food is the most coherent and focused sequence of the film. I know how meat gets on our table, but still, seeing chickens, cows and pigs treated without any dignity or worth, in the context of everything else shown was gut-wrenching. For an hour we see human interaction, we see love, we see poverty, but throughout it all everyone ascribes value to one another, whether they realise it or not. But when it comes to the food industry, our systematic destruction of a living being into a packaged item of food makes the human harvesting of The Matrix look benevolent by contrast.
Samsara shows all the different ways humans strive to survive, often to the detriment of their well-being, reduced to automatons in factories or cubicles, reduced to pack animals ferrying rocks from one location to another, scarring their bodies under unbearable weights. Lives ruled by ritual and tradition, both seemingly liberating and suffocating.
Combined with music by the likes of Lisa Gerrard, Michael Stearns and Marcello De Francisci, this visual feast nourishes the mind and emotions, makes you contemplate the relationship between nature and man.
Samsara is a work of art, a work of history, a work of culture. Cycles, repetition, suffering, release, peace. After this mote of dust, as our planet was once called by the great Carl Sagan, suspended in a sunbeam is no more, will these cycles continue elsewhere in the universe? This film makes me dare to believe.
Also posted at film-news.co.uk