Director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson specialise in shooting non-verbal epics – Baraka (1992 – now being re-released in cinemas) and its successor Samsara (2012) are ambitiously global, visually lush 65mm documentaries that utilise film language only. There’s no spoken dialogue, no titles or subtitles; just moving images with minimal diegetic sound edited with an ambient instrumental score. It’s an uniquely immersive cinematic experience; you just sit back and let the vast hi-res images and surround sound wash over you to transport you all over the world.
Their films grant you extraordinary access to things you’d be lucky to see at some point in your lifetime, if at all, in just an hour and half. It’s like experiencing science and anthropology in situ instead of in museums or surrounded by other tourists – there are no placards or guides to explain what or why (or even where), and you’re left to serenely mull it over on your own.
‘Baraka’ is an ancient Sufi word that means blessing or the essence of life. (Yes, this is the origin of Obama’s first name.) While Samsara (Sankrit for ‘continuous flow’) places more of an accent on urban society’s connectedness, Baraka focuses more on Earth’s origins and spirituality. We start the journey by visiting our evolutionary ancestors, monkeys, bathing in a hot spring. From them, we move on to a wide range of peoples’ ancient ritual practices, from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim Quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City to indigenous peoples such as the aborigines and the Masai.
The camera gives us unfettered access to these people and places, and in that way watching this is nothing like the experience of a tourist. There’s no arduous journey, no panic about feeling foreign and being unable to communicate, no struggle to take things in without being bothered by other tourists or locals hawking wares. On top of that other-worldliness, we get gorgeous time-lapse sequences that enable us to see beyond our limitations. In this way, the film presents a God’s eye view of the world, transcending time and space. We flit around the world, guided by themes instead of regions; this intentional juxtaposition of diverse peoples and places through editing and sound bridges draws attention to their similarities rather than differences.
In addition to allowing us access to remote locations, Baraka also gives us awe-inspiring glimpses of natural phenomena, taking us to the mouth of a live volcano, showing us a sea of clouds cascading over mountains like ethereal water. You may not know where the film has taken you, but that’s part of Fricke’s and Magidson’s design; names and geography are secondary to something’s substance. The film’s not all pretty and peaceful though – the dark underbelly of civilisation is prominently displayed as well. We see the effects of globalisation and over-population: poverty, sweatshop factory working conditions, burning oil fields, ghostly remnants at mass-killing sites. In the end, you do feel like you’ve gone through a guided mediation on the essence of life.
Throughout the film, you’re overwhelmed by the immensity and richness of the images. Fricke and Magidson took 30 thoughtful, pain-staking months to shoot this, including 14 months on location, and invested in 65mm film stock and their own specially-developed rigging, fully committed to their vision. The duo has only done these two feature-length films, and you can’t tell that two decades passed between their releases. They take the long view, which film rarely does; the images they have captured have a timeless quality, resonant regardless of whatever contemporary issues we’re facing.
Baraka so bold in its vision, blazing a path for gems like the BBC’s Planet Earth series, ahead of its time when you think that it was made before Google or YouTube existed. When it was first released, free-association narratives were much more rare; but now, we regularly watch a succession of short, tangentially related videos online. In 1992, you’d have to check encyclopaedias or libraries to know more about what’s in the film, but now, we can just take out our smartphones once leaving the cinema to do research. While it’s tempting to get quick answers and plug back into our information-overloaded existences after watching the film, I’d advise you to wait a while. When you leave the theatre, you ought to feel an afterglow from floating around the world without language barriers… so just take some time to enjoy it.
Baraka is on limited release now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.