Samsara is the latest of a series of nonfiction collages of the world: pseudo-sequel to Baraka, tangential to Chronos and Koyaanisqatsi. It doesn’t differ all that much from the type, though that says nothing negative of it. Samsara’s primary creators, Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson, served the same roles on Baraka, the film best known of the type and nearest in style to Samsara. These films cannot be said to have broad appeal. They’re each an hour and a half of loosely connected and stunning imagery from across the planet. Miniature narrative threads and themes carry throughout, but any overarching thread can only be given meaning by the viewer. This may be frustrating to some, but largely, it’s hard to even think of such things when we’re constantly being reminded how stunning the world around us is.
The film takes no explicit viewpoints, though it may seem to suggest certain notions from the way that the film is edited. There is no narration, no interviews. The images are presented only with music that helps embellish the collage’s pacing. It’s immediately apparent, however, how this can all work. The film can cut between connected pieces of the same location or between two comparable locations, or it can cut between two locations it wants to draw parallels to. Sparse terrain dotted by elaborate temples might cut to urban sprawl. Mechanical repetition might cut to a human run production line.
In this sense, there are perhaps two distinct phases that this film alternatingly engages: gorgeous images of gorgeous locations and gorgeous images of weird human processes. The former are often the most stunning. The film opens on volcanic smoke, glowing lava. It makes the Earth seem like something out of fantasy. Samsara’s strength is in its power to accomplish this, a feat that makes it hard not to stun its viewer. We see bright yellow stones, mountains, waterfalls. We see incredible architecture carved into the sides of massive boulders or temples constructed on their own. Even when the film shows us more familiar locations, cityscapes, indoor snowboarding arenas, it’s all shot as if even the camera’s eye were in awe.
The phases focusing on human processes evoke a significantly stronger narrative. While these may be less immediately striking, it’s perhaps a necessity to keep one’s focus throughout this experience. One can only associate images and live in awe for so long. One arc shows the construction of consumer appliances followed by a room full of old computers. It brings us to a recycling factory where they are torn apart and finally to a junkyard where they are salvaged by citizens of a third world country. There’s an obvious cycle. Birth, use, destruction, repurpose. This exemplifies what the film speaks most strongly to. When it cuts from temples among open fields of grass to flat homes and roads, it’s easy to see what they’re pointing out. It’s important to have this all on film, because it may not be around that much longer.
Samsara was shot on 65mm film, an infrequently used format, but one with significant advantages. It is larger than traditional 35mm, and this results in a stunning increase in image quality. However, Samsara was converted to digital for post, and in spite of its stunning look, it has a decidedly digital tone. This is perhaps a result of the constant over saturation of the shot’s dominant colors. This makes each image hugely impressive and likely helps to evoke the sense of awe and fantasy. There is an aspect to this, however, that feels mildly untruthful. The world simply isn’t this bright and thick with color. Samsara can be said to have trained its eye as to enlighten us to these points, and so this hint of falsity can be forgiven. It’s more than likely that most viewers will not take notice to this. However, it is an odd insincerity for a film that seems to promise to show us the true world.
The physical layout of our visuals is often based on symmetry or repetition. This is more than common, though it never becomes tiring. Repetition in particular is useful for its ability to construct a miniature narrative within one shot while also giving a sense of movement for our eyes to follow. In one shot, we see rifles layered endlessly, and we can follow along down their trigger guard. Simultaneously, this speaks to gun production in developed worlds. The symmetry is used to particular effect in the developed world. It points out mechanical beauty that we would otherwise overlook. The camera can stand back and observe where we would only see the practicality.
The film manages to teach us about processes of the world. It shows us how stunning the things around us are that we fail to notice. It’s hard not to take something out of the experience that is Samsara, but whether you take something more specific isn’t assured. The film requires engagement by the viewer, and though it tries its best to keep us moving forward, one may falter some by the end. Still, it’s an engaging and stunning experience as good as any traditional nature documentary. Samsara exceeds such things, however. Through its silence, it allows the viewer a sense of freedom. Samsara may have judgements, but it still lets us come to our own.