We live in two worlds: Baraka and Samsara

09 January 2013

Monday 14 January sees the Blu-ray release of two of Ron Fricke's epic travelogues, 'Baraka' and its belated follow-up, 'Samsara'. Both films probe man's relation to nature to often stunning effect.

Come at Ron Fricke's Baraka (1992) and Samsara (2011) during their most enthralling sequences and you'll feel a palpable interaction between the human and the planetary, the man-made and the natural. Released here in a double Blu-ray package by Arrow Films, both works are wordless forays into a synthetic yonder of cultural and geographical unknowns as well as the more familiar and everyday - themselves, of course, demanding and rewarding fresh vantage points. Juxtaposing stunning vistas with illusory still portraiture, each film unfolds like a National Geographic image-a-day calendar in motion.

First released in UK cinemas in 1993, Baraka was shot in countries - over twenty in total - as far apart as Nepal and Brazil, Kenya and Ecuador, Egypt and Japan. Drawing us into its contemplative rhythms from the outset, Fricke and producer/co-editor Mark Magidson hop from an awesome mountain retreat to the surreal view of a passenger jet passing over an urban scaffolding structure seemingly within touching distance: from the sparse to the populated, the world as seen in Baraka is a place of such wondrous versatility and vitality that it's difficult not to respond to it with humbled and ineffective superlatives. Wordless throughout, the film eschews a conventional documentarian argument and prefers to allows its imagery - photographed by Fricke in frequently amazing 65mm - to do its talking, with editorial globe-hops that advertise aphoristic claims that it's a small and precious world indeed.

Other editorial decisions draw parallels between geological time and human time, between the natural world and our interventions upon it: trees are felled and quarries demolished in contrast to long-standing ancient memorials, while mountainous regions, standing tall after millions of years, are ironically echoed by apartment blocks that seem to have been banged up overnight. Other, more pointed juxtapositions are made: as Fricke's camera slowly tilts up to reveal a ceaseless Manhattan grid of rigid commutes and daily grind, we cut to the odiously named "City of Landfill" in India, its heaps of trash populated by locals. As more commuters are seen navigating a train station over the course of an inner-city rush-hour, meanwhile, chicks are fed through the labyrinthine conveyer system of industrialised farming.

For all that, Baraka feels only occasionally emotive, such as when Fricke opts to sustain a slow-motion shot of a homeless child begging for money from indifferent passers-by. At such moments, Michael Stearn's otherwise brilliant score seems a tad overbearing; though no reasoned mind could argue in favour of the social wealth that pervades our planet, moments such as these feel banal alongside the genuinely impressive panoramas displayed elsewhere. Indeed, such views - filmed as if from the wing of some inexhaustibly patient bird - are an effective and welcome fixture in a cinematic age defined by an increasing reliance on CGI-created worlds.

Some nineteen years on from Baraka, Samsara sees Fricke et al. return to and extend familiar territory and themes, employing the earlier film's narrative template almost to a tee in order to broaden an emphasis on certain riffs. Here, the human/non-human binary seems more prevalent, as evinced by the way the camera floats forward in one moment, so as to mimic an explorer's natural movement, and then side-to-side like a crab in another moment, thereby suggesting some alien vantage point. Though when described these motions may seem to counteract one another, Stearn's score (this time with Lisa Gerrard and Marcello di Francisci's input) anchors them in harmony.

Like an extended series of Kuleshov experiments, landscapes are frequently intercut with set-up shots of people's faces, their otherwise blank expressions suggesting varying degrees of affinity to their environs. Such juxtapositions seem almost inherently melancholic in tone, as if these subjects long for a return to a kind of primitive, instinctive understanding. As if to hammer the point home, Fricke shows a series of first-world pastimes - skiing, golf, gym sessions - as constitutive of a sped-up monotony. At another, particularly brutal point, we're encouraged to smile as ever-cute piglets squabble to suck milk from their mother, only for a leftward pan to reveal the sow is encaged, her motherly instincts enforced upon her by an industry that, as the next set of images show, has bred its pigs to sell as meat.

Samsara comes to suggest that in a world of increasing instability, where the line between the possible and the impossible is more and more blurred, differing levels of reality are becoming irrevocably interlaced: note the images here of hyperreal sex dolls, juxtaposed with a bizarre and possibly staged poledancing competition, whose contestants look more fake than both the previous dolls and that twin, seen earlier in the film, which turns out to be a life-like robot.

Even more disturbing than this sequence, though, is that which lingers on the no-doubt profitable industry of children's coffins, built in various designs such as limos, airplanes and cartoonish zoo animals; culminating with a juxtaposition between images of bullet manufacturing and portraits of American suburban families and neo-colonial tribes both posing with formidable weaponry, the centrepiece of this passage is a surreal shot of a black family laying a loved one to rest inside a coffin made in the shape of a gun. Such sequences may risk a preachiness, but they also entwine the murderous imperatives of colonialism and imperialism - both of which have defined western civilisation - with a domestic trauma that is surely the outcome of a continued and escalating aggressive foreign policy.

It seems too easy, in fact, to criticise Fricke's films on political terms. To begin with, for all the suggestions of religious and cultural tolerance, there's a humbling awesomeness to the birdseye views here as well as a curiosity to the ground-level roaming. One feels that Fricke and co. are recording their own wonder at the same time as shaping the material into a semi-coherent rumination on the circularity of life. And, freed of convention, they've managed to capture some genuinely joyous moments that linger long after viewing: one of these is the painstaking, detailed artform of the Sand Mandala, as practised by Tibetan Buddhist monks; another is the Dancing Inmates of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, whose choreography and energy is a thing of strange beauty.

As one set of images in a theatre imply, however, life as presented by Samsara is a play-off between the lived and the imagined. Perhaps the film's most powerful and energetic (and eerie) scene, then, is that which takes place in its most superficially ordinary setting: behind an office desk sits French performer and artist Olivier de Sagazan, as he slaps paint and plaster on his face to the point at which his entire head is covered, channelling firstly The Joker, secondly The Scarecrow, and finally something else entirely, unnameable and unfathomably brilliant.