We have been told that there are six degrees of separation between us and every other person on this planet. The census conducted in 2000 revealed that our population had passed 7.4 billion. That is a lot of sixes to divide up. If you are in doubt about that theory, all you need to do is seek out an extraordinary new film named Samsara, a wordless, sight and sound documentary from filmmaker Ron Fricke that was shot on 70mm and features hi-def images from over 25 countries, shot over 5 years in an effort to capture the flow of life on this planet, both for better and for worse.
Samsara follows in the footsteps of Fricke’s two previous films, Chronos made in 1985 and Baraka, made in 1992. His mission, in all three films, is to capture glimpses of humanity without auditory comment. He wants the images to speak for themselves. Like the other two films, this one also contains a musical soundtrack that comments on the images we are seeing, not just background noise but an emotional backdrop. Try imagining if National Geographic conducted a symphony and you’ve got the idea.
Samsara contains no dialogue, no actors, no story – that’s a good thing. It simply takes us around the world to different and often very remote places and reminds us that even in the hyper-active information age of the 21st century, there are still places on earth untouched by bulldozers, strip malls, parking lots, Starbucks or McDonald’s. There are still natural wonders to behold. There are still grand religious rituals that take place. There is still great pageantry to the world. The film opens with a ritualistic dance featuring three Cambodian girls with very bizarre looks on their faces. We are privy to a group of Tibetan monks making sand sculptures. Those scenes are a wonder to behold, while others like a bizarre lingering shot of a performance artist who rubs clay on his face and then violently rips it apart runs too long and brings the movie to a dead stop.
That’s the only misstep, the rest of the film is astonishing. What seems, to the passive eye, to be just a travelogue of images actually has a buried, unspoken message. With Baraka, Fricke attempted to visualize the evolution of man. Samsara seems to have a much darker message. He begins with magnificent shots of God’s natural beauty (mountains, deserts, waterfalls, volcanoes) juxtaposed with man’s religious architecture (The Vatican; a Burmese pagoda; a Tibetan temple), both show us beautiful monuments but none-the-less prove that God still has the better paintbrush. The point is to show the flow of nature and how it effects and inspires man.
Then the movie moves into a series of scenes that reveal another purpose. The mechanized world (seen with the camera sped-up) is viewed through man’s dependence upon machines. One series of images begins in a computer factory in China where the pieces are assembled; then we move to the check-out line of a discount store in America, where we see thousands of electronic gizmos being purchased; then we see a garbage dump in Brazil where poor peasants risk vermin and disease to pick through the trash to find parts that we have thrown out. This is all done in fast motion and the effect, along with the message, is astonishing.
There is a short but devastating sequence in a factory that processes chickens. We see the process of manufacturing those McNuggets that we had probably hoped never to see. That’s followed by a sequence involving cows hooked up to a milking machine on a conveyer belt that looks like something out of Logan’s Run. The message is that something in the flow of nature has gone off the rails. We’ve upset the balance of our natural world with conveyer belts, stainless-steel chutes and rendering plants. The movie wants us to understand that our modern conveniences outside of the natural order have consequences. Take, for example, a scene in a factory that makes handguns and rifles. We see the weapons being manufactured, then cut to a trio of gun nuts proudly holding their rifles aloft. That’s followed by the image of a badly scarred soldier who might want to have a chat with those people.
That is a minor part of the film, but the message is made clear. The other striking continuity of Samsara is its focus on women. There are more women in this film than men, mostly seen in close-up. We see lots of women in religious dance, in tribal rituals and on the job. Many times we see women with their children as motherhood becomes a buried theme. You don’t notice it at first, but there is a contrast here between the giving of life (mother and child) and the taking of life (the guns and the chicken factory). One of the first images is of a baby in the womb, and there is a sort of celebration of the fact that the woman’s body is a temple from which life is created. That is juxtaposed with the man-made intention of turning women into sex objects. We see dozens of women in a club dancing in bikinis with numbers on their hips, almost like cattle. What is suggested is that the leering quality of sexual promiscuity seems to break up the greater purpose of the original reproductive order. Then there is the whole area of an assembly house that makes plastic Love Dolls. Make of that what you want.
In contrast there is also a surprisingly positive outlook on death. The beginning of the film shows us a series of fascinating images from King Tut’s sarcophagus, to one of the bog people, then to a shot of little Rosalia Lombardo, a 2 year-old girl who died of pneumonia in 1920 and is perfectly preserved to this day in a glass coffin in Sicily. There is a wonderfully comic image of a showroom of caskets in which we see coffins made up to look like cars, airplanes, you name it. Then we see a strange funeral in which the deceased is buried in a casket shaped like a rifle. The point seems to be that if you have to go, you might as well make it memorable.
In spite of all the buried messages and the images of life and death, you walk out of Samsara feeling that you have experienced the world in a fresh new way. The film represents one of the great pleasures of breaking away from simple-minded Hollywood event films. This is a film that not only entertains you (oh my does it ever entertain) but it also gives you something to take with you when it is over. Just as with Baraka you walk away with a strange sense that you have a different view of the world around you and a better appreciation of the simple joys of being human.