Samsara is the latest project from Ron Fricke, documentary photographer extraordinaire who, 20 years ago, wowed certain circles with Baraka, a visual feast of globe-trotting beauty. Samsara looks to repeat that film’s success and audacity, as we take a world tour of life, death and everything in between, and not a word uttered.
The difficulties that films like this get into is that there is simply too much to cover. Simon Pummell’s Bodysong proved to be an ultimately failed attempt at encapsulating every aspect of what it means to be human, from conception to the grave. Samsara proves more successful because whilst the canvas is vast, the focus is a little more particular. And whilst Samsara means “cyclical existence”, the film itself is more concerned with particular patterns and contrasts between the varied cultures of the world. And our obsession with augmenting or hiding ourselves.
This last element comes to the fore through both a preoccupation with people in varying forms of costume – from geishas to tribesmen – to the Western world’s fascination with artificiality – cosmetic surgery and artificial humans. One wonders, looking at these stark images, what it is we might be unhappy with about ourselves? Is it aesthetic, or is it something deeper? A rot in our culture? Like the proverbial glass of water, it depends on how your approach it. Perhaps we’re not covering ourselves up, perhaps we’re expressing something new. Externalising.
Samsara has certainly courted criticism in some quarters for its supposedly damning portrayal of Western consumerism and waste. A prolonged section on battery farming and obesity is countered by an equally sobering depiction of a ghetto built entirely on refuse. But I would hardly call it laboured sermonising. Samsara chooses its subject matter in order to highlight contrasts and variances from civilisation to civilisation. It does not comment and it does not judge, it merely depicts. Any negative bent the viewer feels toward what is shown to them is most likely that which they’ve brought to the film themselves.
Elements of Samsara are quite playful. A shot of a doctor marking a face in preparation for what may be a nose-job is followed immediately by one of an artisan painting the eyelashes onto a life-like sex-doll. I’m not sure if I particularly enjoyed this cut because of the wry humour at marrying these images, or out of simple relief that the surgical procedure was not going to be depicted.
The film begins and ends with a group of monks carefully constructing a complex pattern out of coloured granules only to obliterate their work at its completion, swirling the grains into a blended sea. This seems a fitting analogy for Samsara as a whole, presenting us with our disparate rituals and life cycles and then reminding us that, as different as we are, we are of one Earth, and are all made the same. Equally, the round and round of creation and destruction suggests the cyclical existence of the film’s own name.
Samsara was shot entirely on 70mm film, and looks amazing. Depending on how predisposed to this kind of free-roaming documentary you are, it’s either a provocative collage of images that will get you thinking about not only your own life but our lives collectively, or it’s a cross between National Geographic The Movie and the longest BBC ident you’ve ever seen. You probably know already whether you’re going to enjoy it or not. For anyone out there who found the more esoteric sections of The Tree Of Life unbearable, please, this is not for you.
If you’re open to it though, you may well be astounded, as much by nature’s wonders as our own achievements. Samsara depicts some staggering feats of architecture, from vast Eastern temples to modern skyscrapers. A key shot in the film shows one of each, side-by-side, as Fricke wisely acknowledges that our worlds are not mutually exclusive. Both are rendered beautiful through Fricke’s exquisite gaze, and many of the more affecting images, for me, were of buildings and cityscapes, both prosperous and desolate.
And the images of Mecca toward the film’s close are simply jaw-dropping.
There is still the sense that there is simply too much to cover, and so Samsara fails on some levels out of sheer inevitability. But it also leaves the viewer with indelible images, images that will stay with you long after the film is over, and that in itself is a remarkable achievement. At its worst it can seem like the extra-bits from Madonna’s Ray Of Light video lifted from the cutting room floor. At its best, it’s a purely transcendent experience that reminds you that there are no borders and that, fundamentally, we are all searching for the same things.