Samsara and Baraka, Our World in Film

Coming soon to a theater near you. We’ve all heard those words. (At least I think we have. Do movie advertisements say that any more?) But for a lot of the movies I’d like to see, it’s not true. That’s because my community doesn’t have a local venue for foreign films and documentaries. We do, though, have a library that does a pretty good job of keeping up with off-the-beaten-path movies. For these kinds of films, maybe the slogan should be “Coming later to a library near you.”

That brings me to a new production that premiers today in New York and Seattle. The title is Samsara, which the production’s website says is “a Sanskrit word that means ‘the ever turning wheel of life.'” It’s a series of video clips filmed in 25 countries over a period of nearly five years. With a musical score but no dialogue or commentary, it is director Ron Fricke’s followup to his earlier Baraka (1992). Both follow the same format, and both were shot on high-resolution 70 mm film. Baraka, a word present in several languages, means “blessing.”

Of Baraka, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert writes, “Of course there is a ‘message’ somewhere in ‘Baraka’—the same message we have heard before, about how man must love and respect the planet.” But Mark Magidson, who produced and co-edited Samsara and worked on Baraka as well, tells The New York Times that with Samsara, “We’re not trying to say anything.”

Maybe the editing of Samsara will end up showing an obvious message, but it looks to me right now that the film is a video Rorschach test, with the meaning varying from viewer to viewer. In fact, I envision getting a copy and showing it to some groups—for instance, college students or potential missionaries or veteran cross-cultural workers—and asking them, “What do you think the filmmakers are trying to say? What one-word title would you give to the movie? What does it mean to you?”

In 2008, Baraka was digitally restored and released on Blu-ray (it’s also available on DVD). In response to the restoration, Ebert writes, “If man sends another Voyager to the distant stars and it can carry only one film on board, that film might be “Baraka.” And as for the Blu-ray version:

[It] is the finest video disc I have every viewed or ever imagined. . . . It is comparable to what is perceptible to the human eye, the restorers say. “Baraka” by itself is sufficient reason to acquire a Blu-ray player.

While I’m waiting for Samsara to come to my library, I think I’ll check out—or buy—a copy of Baraka. And maybe both will be aboard Voyager 3, going soon to a galaxy far, far away.

(Nicolas Rapold, “Planetary Poetry, Woven into a Movie,” The New York Times, August 18, 2012; Roger Ebert, “Baraka,” November 12, 1993; Ebert, “Baraka [1992],” October 16, 2008)

[photo: “holi amusedness!” by Elijah Nouvelage, used under a Creative Commons license]


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