Samsara, a non-verbal, visually astounding documentary, is the second feature film by Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson, the creators of 1992’s critically acclaimed Baraka. Filmed in 25 different countries over a period of five years, Samsara was shot entirely on 70mm film. The result is a quality of image resolution that audiences are rarely used to seeing, with a picture so clear and dynamic, it seems as if you could reach your hand through the screen to wipe the dew from a leaf, or, with one step, feel the heat of sun-baked sand under against the soles of your feet. This visual clarity, along with breathtaking cinematography, sequences of time-lapse photography that seem almost supernatural, and an equally entrancing musical soundtrack, makes it a film too sensually overwhelming for language to describe. It’s “beautiful,” it’s “immersive,” it’s “spellbinding,” at times, it’s “gut-wrenching” and “terrifying.” Yet none of these abstract ideas capture the visual and aural poetry of this film. Samsara, which in Sanskirt translates to “the ever turning wheel of life,” is truly unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.
So, what is Samsara? It’s part National Geographic, part Planet Earth. It’s a meditation, a visual ethnography, a social critique, an art mosaic, a love letter to the constant beauty present in our world. At times, it feels like science fiction, that of course isn’t fiction, but a re-envisioning of Earth, seen though what feels like alien eyes. With no dialogue, it’s not quite a documentary, and with much seemingly random juxtaposition, it’s not quite a narrative story. This is a film without a genre, but not without a message. Its omission of words allows for entirely personal subjectivity of meaning, so that any dialogue that’s experienced is the thoughts created in the viewer’s mind. With nothing between the audience but the music throbbing in their ears and the vibrant images reflecting in their eyes, no one will see the same Samsara.
In many moments throughout its seamless sequences, Samsara is simply a visceral pornography for the traveler. Serene aerial views of the golden Bagan temples of Myanmar, close-ups of the stone-carved architecture at Petra in Jordan, and a sweep through the glimmering Hall of Mirrors at Chateau de Versailles had my restless soul feeling unbearable pangs of wanderlust at this visual feast of romantic exoticism. But just as much as Samsara is about the beauty of the world, it is also a story of suffering, sadness, and the struggle for our ancient world to exist in a modern time. As the title suggests, it’s about the cycle of life. And ultimately, it demonstrates the interconnection, and violent disconnection, that exists between humans and the planet we all share.
In its most stirring moments, Samsara’s multi-national cast of “characters” stares into the camera, forcing us to make eye contact with strangers, to study the lines in their faces, the specks of color in their eyes, and recognize a similar human essence among us all. Inside factories, we see the phenomenon that is machinery. With bird’s-eye views of Dubai’s fingerlike islands and L.A.’s glittering sprawl of freeways, we see the absurd vastness of civilization. From baptisms to burials, we see the rhythmic cycles of birth, death, life, and destruction. We are forced to acknowledge the ways in which the insignificant details of our lives so deeply affect so many others. We are overwhelmed by the profusion of energy that is constantly pulsating around us in a world to which we are deeply connected and yet entirely detached from. At times we feel alien to our own planet, witnessing elements of the natural and man-made world that we never knew existed. We are awestruck by the sheer abundance of the world. We are bombarded with scenes of reality, while asking ourselves, ‘What, then, is reality?’ We see evolution, natural and cultural, happening before our eyes. In short, we see life.
Samsara is not “new age,” and despite its meditative qualities and frequent depictions of religious ritual, it is not even necessarily spiritual. It could be Humanist, Marxist, Gaiaist, or Darwinist. It could be a demonstration of the obvious design of the world, or of the obvious chaos of it. Any of its moments could easily be the most impressionable on any individual, allowing each of us a unique, yet equally rich viewing experience, with the opportunity to create personal interpretations and meanings. As an achievement of film, it’s a work that truly challenges—and perhaps reinvents—the definition of motion picture. As an achievement of art, Samsara will change the way you see our world.
Samsara is currently screening in select theaters. To find a theater near you, watch the trailer, and learn more about the journey, visit barakasamsara.com. To see Spirituality and Health’s behind-the-scenes coverage of the making of Samsara, click here.