Samsara is the latest feature collaboration between cinematographer Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidosn, who previously partnered on both Chronos and Baraka. All are wordless documentaries of a sort, which capture and compile a wide assortment of images from around the world to reflect on the interaction between people, nature and technological progress.
In the opening moments of the main bonus feature on this disc, Ron Fricke describes the loose concept behind Samsara as a representation of birth, death and then rebirth. The word samsara itself translates to a meaning of “continuous flow” or “the ever turning wheel of life.” Reincarnation for the mystics, but a general renewal in the context of many of the subjects viewed in the film.
This concept is especially poignant as a viewer moves through the different phases of the film. The first third or so of the picture is quite still and mostly beautiful, largely focusing on locations and people where life is paced a bit slower and rooted closer to the natural world. There are even some images of ruin – scenes from the flood-ravaged buildings in New Orleans are particularly haunting – showing that some locations are not necessarily at this quiet stage by choice.
But it’s still a counterpoint to the next section, where civilization becomes more crowded, the pace of life accelerates, and technology more strikingly connects aspects of our lives. This section includes some uncomfortable realities, and seems to continually plug the idea that our constant march toward industrialized efficiency isn’t without a sea of consequences, many of which we may not even realize. We visit some of these effects as well, forcing the question of whether the product or the progress or the way of life is always worth the cost. It only receives a short respite at the end where some of the images from the opening scenes are revisited; a recapitulation of the motif from the beginning that signals that rebirth is not only possible but continually happening. A return to something more simple and pure, perhaps only a decision away.
I thought quite a bit while watching and re-watching this film. I wrestled between thinking it had a very obvious and occasionally heavy-handed agenda and then wondering why a series of images elicited such a response from me. Was it because I thought the images weren’t true or overly manipulative, or because I just didn’t want to accept their reality? At one point there are some scenes from very elaborate but somewhat unsettling factory farming complexes. Chickens that are essentially sucked up in a combine-like robotic tractor; cows that are literally on a massive conveyer belt both when alive and being mechanically milked and then again when being butchered and hastily processed. “Is Samsara trying to make me a vegetarian?” I wondered.
They (the filmmakers) could conceivably prefer that, I’m not entirely sure. But that’s not the point. Whether I’m encouraged or repelled by some of these images, they are still the state of affairs, and simply reflect our drive for faster, cheaper and more. Their point seems to be that changes in our world have consequences. The fact that we aren’t always confronted with them, or perhaps aren’t confronted with alternatives may not be the best thing, and may prevent us from making changes that we might prefer instead. A blind march towards whatever technology brings might be the death of what we previously cherished.
And it’s certainly not just a film about food. Similar questions could arise from the juxtaposition of lifelike robotic humanoids followed by the manufacture of sex dolls, or the conveyor belt production line against the time-lapse of customer lines buying in bulk from a discount warehouse. The film seems to highlight our priorities, whether good or bad. At every turn society seems to value volume, speed and immediacy above all. In some areas it can be an innocuous choice, but in others it feels quite a bit less so.
Samsara isn’t an easy film to explain or review. It’s a wordless, pictorial journey around the world. It visits different locales, people groups, states of life and of nature. It’s a study in contrasts and similarities among all the different aspects of our modern world, as well as a visual poem on its current state of affairs. If you’re looking for something akin to the BBC Earth films minus all the chatter, it isn’t quite that. It’s often beautiful and lyrical, but just as often uncomfortable and unsettling. It’s both hopeful and sad, whimsical and morose, preachy and agnostic. It’s sure to illicit at least some mix of positive and troubling emotions for viewers, and is captivating, visual food for thought.
Video / Audio
I think it’s safe to say that Samsara features some of the richest color and most vibrant image that you’re likely to see on a Blu-ray release. Part of that is due to the large-format, 70mm film that was used for shooting – which simply has image to spare when sized down to the relatively “modest” resolution of HD – but also because of the meticulous nature of the shooting. The craft and care put into every single frame of this film is more than impressive, in everything from slow aerial pans to hypnotic time-lapse photography. Detail is crisp, color is outstanding and the encode is almost flawless. About the only anomalies I could detect were less than a handful of shots containing mild flicker, and these were generally in less-than-ideal shooting locales and should be chalked up to the tradeoff of getting the shot at all. But on the whole this is simply stellar video (and the producers comments praising how the film looks in 4k makes me think I shouldn’t be too hasty in writing off that ever-present technology as overkill).
The musical score is absolutely fantastic, and is basically the only thing you’ll hear on the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track, although a few scenes mix in some light environment sound. Although the track is rich and full throughout, it doesn’t necessarily concern itself too much with channel separation; with the exception of certain sequences, such as the prison dance section where distinct surround activity is highlighted a bit more. But it does use the full surround theater to simply envelop the listener’s senses. After all, this isn’t a film of gun play and cars driving by. The 7.1 track is powerful and well balanced, even if it’s goal is to stay a touch more uniform on all sides.
There’s really only one main supplemental item, but it’s both extensive and quite interesting. “Behind The Scenes” (HD, 49:02) is a six-part collection of interviews featuring the filmmakers, support crew and musicians. The conversation is engaging and in-depth, and not only touches on the unique challenges of and themes within Samsara, but also its predecessor, Baraka. Of particular interest is the section highlighting the musicians who worked on the film. Often this can be a neglected segment in making-of features, but with this unique kind of project – especially since it was shot and then edited together as essentially a silent movie – their contributions are integral to establishing the “voice” or emotional narrative in this wordless film. Also included are the “Internet Teaser” trailer (HD, 1:03) and the “Theatrical Trailer” (HD, 1:36).
Samsara certainly contains some breathtaking and beautiful images, and Fricke’s eye for highlighting the wonder in seemingly disparate parts of the globe is frankly unmatched. But the film doesn’t allow you to simply be lulled by screensaver beauty, and instead actively seeks out contrast through some unsettling images. Although there seem to be some rather clear contrasts and connections that the filmmakers want you to notice – often between unspoiled nature and the waste inherent in a technological world – the power of the film is that many more things will be personal connections. You can probably take away as much or as little as you’re willing to invest. Overall, this is quite a revelatory viewing experience that every fan of non-fiction film should see at least once. Not only is it a unique and captivating collage of world imagery, but the technical presentation and bonus content make for an outstanding Blu-ray release.