Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Samsara (2012) directed by Ron Fricke, 18th September 2012

‘Samsara’ is pure cinema.  It achieves transcendence in a way that can only be achieved by film.  It’s an answer to the query as to what cinema can do that literature and theatre can’t.  The vast majority of all films released could be adapted into books, or cut down in some form on stage and remain recognisable.  These adaptations would be different experiences to the film, but the conceptual thrust would remain the same.  ‘Samsara’ can only ever exist as a film; a procession of moving images and sound that gets neurons sparking off each other like nothing else I’ve seen lately.

Ron Fricke has been carving out this niche in cinema for thirty years now.  After working as director of photography on Godfrey Reggio’s ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ (1982), he directed ‘Baraka’ (1992) and ‘Samsara’ is a direct continuation of this filmic tradition.  All of these films share common cinematic DNA; long shots of landscapes, contrasts between ‘natural’ and ‘urban’, closeups of individuals, time lapse photography and a lack of narrative.

‘Samsara’ takes in some jaw-dropping scenery, highlights being temples dotting a green and pastoral landscape at sunset, waterfalls cascading through rainforests, flights over neon cities at night and an amazing view of the Kaaba at Mecca during the Hajj.  These landscapes are contrasted with portraits of people from a huge variety of cultures.  We see young Hindu dancers, Buddhist monks, gun-toting Americans, nomadic African tribes and Thai ladyboys.  Conceptually the film is divided into chapters, sex, guns, poverty, the natural world and so on, although they’re never delineated and the sections flow into one another organically.

Films like this are perhaps unique in cinema in that they allow the viewer almost complete autonomy to decide what the film's about.  Rather than being presented with a clear message or symbolic intent, we’re just invited to think about what we’re seeing.  This sounds deceptively simple. The only thing the film asks of us is that we analyse the visuals, and how these sequences might interrelate.  The film is overtly meditative, and the images it presents are shot coolly and dispassionately.  

This openness seems to confuse and bewilder some people.  A number of negative reviews of the film criticise it on the basis that the film doesn’t explain where and what you’re looking at.  I don’t think it matters whether or not you know you’re looking at, say, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or a Ghanian funeral.  What’s important in the film is the image that’s on screen at that moment, not any outside context you wish to apply to it.  In trying to decipher a coherent meaning, I think it’s interesting to consider whose viewpoint we are seeing these images from.  We experience this film unbounded by time and space, ethereally moving around the landscape, observing and never interacting.  Time and motion become malleable and fluid, we observe the stars and sun spinning dizzily over the desert as days and nights fly past us.  The film places the audience in the role of an omniscient god-figure, able to travel anywhere and see anything.  One aspect of these films that I appreciate is that we never feel like what we are seeing is being done for our benefit.  The impression given of these images and events is that they not only would have happened anyway with or without our observation, but that they are ongoing processes – something happening in the here and now.

I see this ‘god’s eye view’ as a tool that’s being used to expand our consciousness, to force us to re-examine our perceptions.  One theme I identified running through the film is the illusion of the self.  There are many huge crowds moving as one in this film, as well as people moving in a highly regimented fashion, be it for military, fitness or religious purposes (among others).  It is hard not to be awed by the sheer amount of humanity on display, particularly in the Hajj sequence at Mecca where millions swirl around the Kaaba like a human whirlpool.  When confronted with a depersonalised crowd this large, the film asks us to consider our own place in humanity.  From our god’s eye viewpoint the individuals in the crowd melt into one another; the notion of the individual seems ridiculous.  When the film does focus on individuals, it shows us a vast spectrum of human life and behaviour.  Can we discern anything of ourselves in the eyes of a nomadic tribal leader?  Is it possible for us to empathise with a Japanese Geisha, or a cellful of Filipino prisoners?

The answer is always yes.  ‘Samsara’ demonstrates that there are myriad ways to be ‘human’.  From the conventionally beautiful to the horrifically scarred to the heavily self modified we are asked to consider them as individual facets of a shared humanity.   The way Fricke shoots these portraits of people recalls similar shots in his previous films – the subjects stare, emotionless into the camera lens.  Rarely are we shown somebody whose thought processes we can immediately comprehend.  These blank expressions have the effect of gently nudging us towards wondering what they are thinking.  If we’re doing this, then we’re being empathetic, and this empathy goes a long way towards involving us in the images we’re being shown. The upshot of this is a blurring of the line between self and not-self.  The word ‘samsara’ is a Sanskrit word defined as the neverending flow of births, lives, deaths and rebirths that constitute humanity.  This is a cycle without end, and ‘Samsara’ allows us to consider our place in it in relation to the rest of humanity.  

Another line that the film blurs is between what is considered ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’.  We see shots of beautiful landscapes untouched by human hands contrasted with vast, shining cityscapes.  Fricke makes no judgments as to which is the more worthy and both are equally stunning in their own ways.  Coupled with this are shots of environments where the line between civilisation and nature isn't so clear.  We see houses filled with sand, doors pushed open by an intruding earth, cracked and dried mud covering every surface of a school.  This boundary is further eroded by a view of a prehistoric looking town built into a cliff face.  Moonlight shines through slits in one of the rooftops, creating a pattern of vertical silver that passes eerily over the interior.  All of this instils not only an empathy for our fellow human beings, but  a profound connection to the entirety of nature.

Just sensing this connection isn’t enough, and ‘Samsara’ shows us why a state of equilibrium and balance with the world around you is important.  There are a series of what I’d classify as ‘perversions’ of the cycle.  Some of these are more symbolic than literal.  The obvious example of the symbolic are the closeups of humanoid robots.  They click, buzz and whirr in an uncomfortable simulation of a person.  We’re deep in the uncanny valley here, and it’s disconcerting to look into the eyes of something that appears vaguely human and see nothing looking back at you.  A continuation of this theme is a later sequence showing the assembly of realistic sex dolls.  In a disturbingly hospital-like room we see headless bodies, female dolls with their legs spread open, everything made of the same unpainted sterile flesh coloured plastic.  We later see the heads, which with their wide staring eyes and rosebud lips seem unpleasantly childlike.  I don’t think Fricke is explicitly condemning these false bodies, rather, he’s showing us an example of humans without humanity.  It’s a warning, an observation of the endpoint of human solipsism; pure plastic image devoid of emotion or feeling.

A more obvious and disturbing perversion of the samsaric cycle are the slaughterhouse sequences.  We see chickens, pigs and cows just prior to slaughter, being manipulated like objects on a production line.  The contrast here is between the frantic and confused flapping of the chickens, and the implacable, cold machines that usher them towards the killing device.  For me the most affecting shot in this sequence was that of piglets suckling on their mother.  The mother was lying down in a stainless steel box, unable to get up or do anything other than lie there.  Watching these piglets fight for milk struck me as depressingly pointless.  Why should they expend so much energy trying to survive?  They're soon going to be gristle for the machine whatever they do.  It's interesting how sterile these sequences are, everything is clean metal and plastic, everything is steam-washed to remove any trace of contamination.  There's a slow sense of horror in watching the wheels of mechanised death inexorably turning, the industrialised slaughter making a mockery of the balance we see elsewhere in the film.  

Of course, this is just my personal, humanist interpretation of the film.  The beauty of 'Samsara' is that it'll mean something different to everyone that watches it.  A film without language, without narrative or characters is truly universal.  Stripped of cultural conventions, Fricke makes films not for a Western audience but for humanity as a whole.  

I'd highly recommend seeing this in cinemas if at all possible.  It's amazing even on a purely technical level, with one of the best digital transfers I've ever seen.  It benefits hugely from watching the whole thing in one go too.  This film casts a spell, and if you were able to pause and rewind at will I fear that spell would be broken. 

'Samsara' is on limited release now.

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