Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Twenty years ago director Ron Fricke released Baraka, a film consisting of disparate visual vignettes from all around the world. The point of the movie seemed to be adding up the visuals into a holistic semi-whole. It was a gorgeous movie and a wonderful viewing experience.  In 2008, he released Samsara, a movie with a similar approach.

The title of the movie suggests what the holistic message might be. Samsara is a concept that seems to recur in multiple religions. In Zen Buddhism it refers to the world around us, which is rife with delusion and contention. When we are wrong-minded, we buy into it and create suffering. Another - more Zen-like - way of describing this is "the cycle of life and death". Hence, the initial brief images before the credits consist of related images: a sarcophagus, a mummy, lava erupting.

After this there is a shot of monks painstakingly using sand to create a mandala which (I'm willing to bet) is a depiction of samsara. (If not, I'd love to know what it is as I think it must be a key to understanding the movie's message). The film goes on to lay out some beautiful images, drawn from all over the world. The fractal-like shapes seen in the mandala are echoed in shots of highway systems at night and housing developments over the sea in (I believe) Dubai.

The film goes on to some beautifully shot but disturbing images: juxtaposing human-looking robots with images of the sex trade, seeing animals trapped in pens for feeding and then obese people eating the products of those animals at a fast food restaurant, people in slums and then convicts doing calisthenics with dance music tracked over it, the manufacture of weapons of war with tribal peoples holding the weapons.

If I'm correct about the meaning of the mandala the monks create at the start of the movie, then one of the last scenes is especially pointed. The monks wipe away the mandala they have painstakingly created. This would be the solution that Zen suggests for dealing with samsara and delusion. Don't.

Samsara is beautifully shot and is very interesting visually, although be prepared for some disturbing images in this amazing video essay.

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