Samsara is a non-narrative, non-verbal documentary directed by Ron Fricke, who previously directed the similar Baraka (1992), the IMAX film Chronos (1985), and was the chief photographer for Koyaanisqatsi (1982). His style of filmmaking is not exactly unprecedented–it goes back at least as far as Dziga Vertov‘s Man With a Movie Camera (1929), and in fact inherits the spirit of some of the earliest films ever made, in which one might find the likes of Georges Melies simply putting a camera atop a moving train and filming a few minutes of the French countryside as it appeared in 1898 (i.e. the aptly titled Panorama From Top of a Moving Train).
It has been suggested that Fricke’s films can be considered time capsules, almost akin to the golden records that are even now carrying recordings of human music and voice beyond our solar system aboard the Voyager space probes. For my part, I find the experience of watching Samsara and its ilk more reminiscent of my childhood, leafing through old National Geographics at the library and ogling the glossy, impossibly exotic photographs. Fricke, for his part, works with moving images, sometimes in very dramatic fashion, as with his trademark use of inventive time-lapse shots, now sometimes combined with what must be carefully computer-controlled camera moves. Other times, he will shoot a frame so static that it might be mistaken for a still photograph.
What sorts of things is he filming? All manner. He continues to display his great fondness for ancient temples and stoneworks, tattoos and body painting, high mountain lakes, and gnarled bristlecone pines silhouetted against a starry sky (yes, Ron, we get it–the tree is old, and space is really old). He films urban landscapes sometimes as glittering jewels, other times as chaotic dystopias. Samsara‘s middle section includes some dramatic (and for many, surely disturbing) footage of factories in China and Korea–first the ones that make cars, clothes irons and George Foreman grills, then the ones that deal in livestock. Scenes of hundreds of chickens being whisked (mostly intact) into crates by machines resembling combine harvesters, followed closely by time-lapse footage of a family of larger-framed Americans dining at a Burger King, feel a little like cheap shots, but they make their point. As with Baraka, Samsara seems to have a three-act structure. Act 1: Pretty — Act 2: Preachy — Act 3: Back to Pretty.
Fricke’s visual tastes reveal patterns enough to be considered a bit fetishistic. But broadly speaking, his chief interest seems to be in capturing the most striking and interesting images available on the surface of planet Earth. Filmed over five years in 25 countries on sparkling 70mm film (if it’s at all possible for you to watch this on Blu-ray, do it), Samsara proves he has the patience and technical know-how to find them. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 1/8/13