Samsara and its predecessor Baraka are pure visual poetry. They‘re breathtaking films that can be seen as a Sociocultural Environmental barometer on the state of the planet Earth. Much like The Qatsi trilogy, these visual documentaries are filmed in many locations all over the world to show us how humans everywhere are living in or out of harmony with the planet.
The title of the film comes from the Buddhist & Hindu concept Samsara, which refers to the cycle of birth, death and rebirth and how as humans we are conditioned to follow certain biases towards spiritual life, and how these predilections are perpetuated from one generation to the next.
The movie starts with the Tibetan Buddhist ritual of the Sand Mandala; a detailed circular painting created using colored grains of sand while young Buddhist apprentices look on in amazement. The ritual destruction of the painting when it’s completed is symbolically shown near the close of the film to emphasize the Buddhist concept of impermanence.
It’s been 20 years since Ron Fricke’s last film Baraka (1992), and ten years since we last saw a film of such stunning beauty when Naqoyqatsi (2002) was released to complete the Qatsi trilogy, of which Ron Fricke was the cinematographer on the first film, Koyaanisqatsi (1982), exactly thirty years ago. Samsara, the latest installment, continues many of the visual themes from those films.
We are shown erupting volcanoes and the aftermath of natural disasters in various places around the world, remnants of past civilizations that have long gone but their legacy continues into the present. We see fetal babies and mummified corpses and the similarities of the expressions on their faces. Massive Chinese factories and factory workers as they perform mind numbing repetitive tasks followed by images of the treatment of animals in food production plants.
Throughout, there is organic inspirational music that relates to the images we are seeing. In many cases, composers Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci used authentic instruments from the regions depicted. Sometimes a mixture of music from different regions is used and sometimes the images and music are intentionally mismatched to emphasize a certain theme or global connection.
Another theme touched upon by these films is the dehumanization of modern life, mass consumption and consumerism and our mindless worship of money and wealth at the expense of our mental and physical health. It also shows our obsession with sex and pleasure juxtaposed with our violent need to protect our destructive way of life with armies and weapons.
Because of its lack of dialogue and the broad themes touched upon, the films are contemplative in nature and can be viewed multiple times; they also encourage discussion while watching. I like watching these films with a group of people and listening to all the different reactions to the images and dialogues it gives rise to.
We are shown cathedrals and places of worship together with temples of nature and how we worship material things and destroy or deform natural things. Religious rituals of faiths from all walks of life in different parts of the world are a fascinating part of these documentaries. One segment that is very interesting and fun to watch is the spectacle of Filipino prison inmates dancing to popular music hits. It reminded me of a similar scene in Baraka that showed a performance of the Ketjak, a traditional Balinese Monkey chant between groups of opposing tribal men chanting back and forth at each other in unison.
Watching these timeless films is an extremely rewarding experience that gives us an impartial perspective on our lives from a distance and shows us the common thread that runs through our activities and rituals, giving us a greater understanding of our world and its people.