‘Samsara’ is a most unusual film – one that is absent of dialogue but packed with images from sacred the places the world over. Directed by Ron Fricke, ‘Samsara’ is the sequel to ‘Baraka’ from 1992, which in Arabic translates to blessing. Samara, on the other hand, is defined as the cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound. This picture was filmed over four years in 25 countries around the world, shot on 70mm film and output to digital format. In the words of the filmmakers, “’Samsara’ explores the wonders of our world from the mundane to the miraculous, looking into the unfathomable reaches of man’s spirituality and the human experience.”
As mentioned previously, there is no dialogue here, just images and music. Spirituality, or religion, depending on how you view it, plays a huge role in ‘Samsara’ – we see shots of primitive people engaging in their tribal rights by dancing, and man’s evolution, which eventually leads to people praying in mosques, and churches, as well as an increase in the volume of human traffic on city streets through sped up images. The images in this picture are as equal parts awe-inspiring and disturbing, but all of it is handled with great care. Most films don’t require much of the viewer – we sit in a movie theatre and passively experience the events that unfold on the screen. This is an example of an experience complete onto itself – the viewer is transported from his or her theatre seat into this strange world – a world we all inhabit, but one we fail to meditatively regard the strangeness and wonder of.
I envy these filmmakers. They were able to travel the world and record such magnificent images. But at least this project was in the hands of some incredibly visionary artists. This is the sort of picture that could serve as a time capsule – should future generations ever wonder what it was like to live on this planet during this time period, ‘Samsara’ would provide the data. Of course, the derivations, hypothesis testing, and conclusions are all for the viewer to draw. There is no narrative in the traditional sense. What was Ron Fickle trying to say? Did he have an agenda? Maybe these cameras were situated in the right spots at the right times. The footage may have then been cobbled together in a random manner. If these sequences of images were rearranged in another order, would it make a difference? What is a beginning? What is an end? What is narrative? If you walk into this film midway, would this still be an experience you can sink into? I think so.
‘Samsara’ may have a standard definition, and in that sense, this is the only thing standard about it. This film means whatever you want it to mean. According to the website Rotten Tomatoes, I am with the critical majority on this picture (which is currently at 72%, which means 72 out of 100 critics are endorsing the movie). But, I have to say, I completely disagree with part of the critical consensus statement: “It’s a tad heavy-handed in its message, but Samsara’s overwhelmingly beautiful visuals more than compensate for any narrative flaws.” Bull. How can ‘Samsara’ be heavy handed if people didn’t get it? Or if it’s meaning varies from viewer to viewer. Criticism about the film’s narrative means that entertainment writers are asking for a more conventional film.
What did I get out of Samsara? I saw a visual palette consisting of people, places, structures, rituals. But, it’s the disturbing bits that stuck with me. There is a scene in which we see chickens and cows at a poultry/beef-processing plant. Operationally, this plant appears to be first-rate. Chickens aren’t smart animals, but they are aware of their fate – within a matter of seconds, they are fed into a tractor, beheaded, stripped of their feathers and skin, and sliced and diced. The cows are processed in an equally mechanical manner using an overhead conveyor, which they hang from before being sliced. The methodology used here would make Six Sigma graduates proud. Assuming that they aren’t vegetarian, of course. This scene not only demonstrates automation at work, but organizational efficiencies by being process-driven.
One of the essential joys of the movie-going experience is that occasionally, you get a film that takes you to a place you haven’t been before. Both ‘Baraka’ and ‘Samsara’ take us to dozens of exciting places the world over. Despite having seen more of the world than the average person at my age, ‘Samsara’ made me realize how little of it I actually know. Everything that was transpiring on the screen had taken place on this planet over the last few years, and yet, I felt in the grand scheme of things, my life experience has been very narrow, and I know next to nothing about my fellow man. Films like ‘Samsara’ inspire one to travel and see the world. And for those, who can’t afford to do so, seeing this documentary is one way to get there. QED.
– Jerry Nadarajah