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‘Samsara’ is a meticulous, beautiful documentary of the core of humanity


Directed by Ron Fricke

USA, 2011

Halfway through Samsara, a pair of heavily tattooed young people, a man and woman, are shown on camera. The woman is staring directly at the camera, as do many of the people highlighted in this documentary. The man’s shaved forehead, however, is bowed so we can see one of his many bits of body art, a tattoo crowning the front of his head, reading “Methodical.” It’s fitting that this word is featured so prominently, even in a shot that winds up lasting about 15 seconds. Samsara, Ron Fricke’s follow-up to the 1992 film Baraka, is nothing short of meticulous, a 100-minute plunge into our modern world and our fractured sense of reality.

Samsara is more a visual tone poem than a typical documentary. It’s similar to nature films shot in IMAX (this was shot on 70MM but is being presented digitally), except there’s no narrator and there’s not a single unifying creature or focus to the content. Fricke and his producer/co-editor Mark Magidson are more interested in presenting discordant elements of life and death, and binding them together by displaying a common routine. You may live a different lifestyle from the African tribesmen who brandish assault rifles, or from the Asian factory workers creating heating irons and other household appliances, but the basic struggles they experience here—caring for others, caring for themselves, and toiling for the greater good—are at the core of humanity.

When Samsara is at its best—especially in the middle section that chronicles the Western world in the 21st century, full of vitality—it’s thanks to the arresting, frequently stunning imagery Fricke (credited as the cinematographer) captures. Fricke puts the audience on a trip all the way from rickety apartment buildings adorned with satellite dishes that are a stone’s throw from the pyramids, to time-lapse photography of a day in the life of the local Costco. Samsara, in short, is replete with images that will either cause your mouth to open in wonder, or to make you think, “How the hell did they pull off that shot?” Some sequences move quicker than others; the fast pace of Western civilization lends itself to the middle third moving like a shot, whereas more languorous visuals in rainforests and deserts slow the rest of the film down.

The themes Fricke and Magidson hit upon repeatedly come alive most strongly in continual footage that emphasizes the eyes. We stare down a varied group of people: children being baptized, erotic dancers, gun enthusiasts, and even robots with a disturbing resemblance to humans. The immense swath of furtive glances and withering glares throughout Samsara echo its most important and fundamental question: can we trust our own eyes to see reality as opposed to artificiality? When we first see one of the humanoid robots, for example, it’s posed next to an actual human, the man who clearly inspired the robot’s visual design. In fact, you won’t know you’re not looking at two humans until there’s a close-up of the robot, its eyes moving in the same repetitive motion, metallic whirring on the soundtrack. The effect, which the audience is never fully prepared for, is haunting; every time Fricke’s camera focuses on a pair of eyes, living, dead, or unreal, always looking right back at us, it’s unnerving.

As Samsara is so poetic, so purposely disjointed, there’s no concrete thesis about the notion of authenticity. We’re shown various ideas about how reality is skewed in the human race. When a group of Indian dancers performs a Busby Berkeley-style routine, certainty is thrown into doubt as the dancers’ hands come into focus; they have eyes drawn on both palms, making it so the lead dancer in a line of many appears to have multiple hands and eyeballs. We even see how humans actively buck against the harshness of reality when facing death, as when pallbearers in a funeral procession carry a coffin designed to look like an old-fashioned rifle, the dead body lying where the barrel would be. If anything, Fricke and Magidson offer up the simple idea that there is no single, unifying definition of reality; it’s what we make of it. Samsara stands out not by delineating such a pat theory, but through its often dazzling execution.

Samsara is, perhaps, a hard sell of a film. It doesn’t fit into an easily quantifiable box like other films in the documentary genre. Though it shares some similarities with nature documentaries such as the epically satisfying BBC programs Planet Earth and Life, it steadfastly refuses to be anything aside from abstract and artful. And yet, this is a profoundly spiritual journey, a film that boasts dizzying images and is also a heady dissertation on what it means to be alive in a world we’re barely aware of outside of what lies beyond our front door.

— Josh Spiegel