Samsara – A Feast for the Senses
Be prepared to be dazzled by Samsara’s eye-popping tour of the world
Any fan of Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson’s 1992 film Baraka take note. Twenty years on the team that brought you one of the most stunning non-verbal films ever made is back. Like its predecessor, Samsara – which in Sanskrit means “continuous flow”, referring to the cycle of birth, death and reincarnation that many Eastern religions and philosophies subscribe to – is made up of a tapestry of images taken from both natural and man-made environments. From Balinese dancers to erupting volcanoes, from the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina to office workers in their cubicles, its breadth in showing the human experience is mind-blowing.
“The hope with this kind of filmmaking is you’re not making a statement so much as trying to provide an experience that allows people to feel a connection to their existence in the world around them,” says producer Magidson, who also co-edited the film with director/cinematographer Fricke. “Ron calls this kind of filmmaking ‘guided meditation’…it’s really about revealing the essence of the subject matter.” Which may explain why The Hollywood Reporter rather flippantly called it a film for “ethnographically inclined New Age stoners”.
Even so, despite the dazzling array of images that pass across our eyes for 102 minutes, this sensory experience began life on paper – albeit with less of a written thesis than Fricke and Magidson used on Baraka. “I think with this film there was a sense where we would make the film with less of a treatment, because we felt like we didn’t really follow it that closely anyway [on Baraka].” The way Magidson sees it the film only really comes together in the editing room, when footage from disparate locations is juxtaposed and sewn together. “It’s very organic,” he says.
Some five years in the making, what impresses about Samsara is the sheer scope of its journey. Like a world atlas come to life – or two dozen Lonely Planet guides – the film travels to over 100 locations in 25 countries across five continents. And arguably, with the exception of the two days the team spent in Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica, these were not tourist destinations. “It’s very rare,” says Magidson, “that we would be in a place that anyone would say, ‘That’s a really nice place to hang out and stay.’ In general we were in emerging countries that were a little more difficult.”
“We’re trying to provide an experience that allows people to feel a connection to the world around them.”
Of course, it’s these sequences, showing us parts of the world rarely captured on film that really leave the jaw hanging. From Ethiopia, where cameras caught the Mursi and Karo tribes, to Mecca (where it took “almost two years” to get permission to film people praying there), Samsara makes National Geographic look pedestrian. Other places off the beaten track included Myanmar, Ghana and “the really rich location” of Namibia, with its diverse geological and geographical spots – jungles, deserts and sand dunes.
Magidson’s own personal highlights include the trip to Ladakh in India, which allowed the crew to shoot the symbolic sequence of monks at the Thiksey Monastery creating the sand painting – or Mandala – that is seen as the definitive symbol of impermanence in Buddhism (a major theme that runs throughout Samsara). “That was difficult because it was about 12,000 feet, the altitude, so you’re really huffing and puffing,” says Magidson, who – despite passing 60 this year – admits he’s “in pretty good shape”.
While Samsara makes it to some pretty remote locations, Magidson wasn’t able to tick off every destination on his wish list. Some, like the Polynesian archipelago known as Easter Island, were just too isolated to justify the cost of a trip there. “Ron and I have talked for almost thirty years about going to Easter Island and filming the [statue] heads under the stars,” says the producer. “But it’s just so hard to get there, and there is nothing else we would probably want to do there.”
Others were political hot-spots that wouldn’t grant access to the Samsara team. “The big fish that got away was North Korea. This was for the Mass Games that they have in July and August in the summer, where they have this big stadium and they do these mass performances with tens of thousands of performers, doing synchronised dancing and singing, all in outfits. We almost got in.”
While the headaches of making a film like Samsara ensure it’s a remarkable logistical achievement, it’s also a technical wonder. The first feature-length film to be shot entirely on 70mm film in over a decade, Magidson felt that shooting on such visually rich film stock was the way forward. “There’s still nothing like it even now,” he grins. “It’s going to stand the test of time.”
Samsara is released in UK cinemas on 31 August 2012.