It can take only an image in film to capture something in its entirety. This has been beautifully illustrated by recent films such as The Artist – which resurrected silent-era film-making and brought it appropriately into the modern era making Blockbuster movies like Avatar look like smut on a shelf next to an epic literary classic.
The Power of the Image in Fricke’s Samsara
So in thinking about the image, I am reminded of a movie I had the opportunity to see on it’s release in New York City last year – Samsara. If you haven’t heard of it that is probably because it wasn’t a movie in the conventional sense so much as a visual document of human life. In Buddhism the word “samsara” means the continuous cycle of birth, death, and re-birth which is, of course, the overarching theme that carries throughout this film; it took over 5 years to produce and spanned the globe across 25 different countries.
Samsara hypnotically draws you in to a world filled with many images – some are familiar and others that are quite strange – but is captured in such a way that every scene feels dream-like and completely surreal. The movie opens with three doll-like Balinese dancers with pink-lipstick smiles plastered on their faces and wide round eyes, rocking their heads back and forth like three dashboard bobble-heads.
Each scene flows into the next, a symphony of images from around the world – some beautiful, others perverse; particularly disturbing scenes include factory workers in China mechanically toiling away, a meat processing factory where cows are manufactured to slaughter, and an obscure clownish man peeling away layers of his face to reveal a menacing grin.
Samsara is the third film by director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson – Chronos (1985) and Baraka (1992) follow a similar theme of visual reflection on the human experience woven together with an original musical score and otherwise entirely silent. The image dominates in both films, Samsara being no exception, with haunting scenes of human rituals and captivating and extreme natural and man-made landscapes. Referred to as a “guided meditation” the film itself extends far beyond the realm of entertainment into the world of spirituality, striving to get at the very core of our essence.
As if from a dream you emerge nearly two hours later. It’s an experience and one that completely transcends the notion of narrative film-making. While passively consuming these images they leave an impression on you that lasts far beyond the span of the film, itself. If you are not curious by now, then I suspect you won’t be much impressed by the movie. But, I can say for those of you who have an appreciation for film-making as a unique art form, Samsara is truly like nothing else.