If you were lucky enough to have seen Ron Fricke’s visually sumptuous, nonverbal documentary Baraka (1992) at just the right age and under the right circumstances (hopefully in a 70mm print, possibly with the sound of a burbling bong echoing in your ears), you almost assuredly had your mind blown to smithereens by its juxtaposition of gorgeous natural landscapes and time-lapsed urban chaos. Nearly 20 years later, the filmmaker and his longtime producing partner, Mark Magidson, have returned with Samsara, a similarly free-flowing look at life, the universe and everything from industrial munitions factories and martial-artist monks to the mummified remains of a 5,000-year-old man. The duo spoke to TONY at their publicist’s midtown office.
You’re both credited with “concept and treatment” for Samsara. How does someone write a treatment or decide what to shoot for a stream-of-consciousness film like this?
Ron Fricke: Well, we throw a bunch of pictures into a bag, shake it up, and then whatever we pull out…I’m kidding. [Laughs]
Mark Magidson:Samsara is a Sanskrit word that revolves around the notion of a perpetual life cycle, so that directed us to certain types of imagery: What is out there that meets these concepts and is visually interesting? It’s a high bar, to be sure, but that gave us a focus for our research and dictated what locations we’d shoot at. We’d work with local production coordinators in each country that would set up access for us. Once we got there, of course, we almost always found incredible things we hadn’t expected; there were lots of happy accidents.
Ron Fricke: I like that you used the term stream-of-consciousness, because that’s really how we think of these types of films—as guided meditations. We wanted to take a viewer through an arc of birth, death and rebirth, so that gave us a foundation to build on, and helped us choose who, what and where we filmed. It’s really all about sculpting the flow of the images, especially once we get into the editing room.
Mark Magidson: We knew we wanted to open and close the film with the images of the Indian monks making the sand painting. But within that framework, there were a million different ways the film could be put together.
Ron Fricke: It was just exploring what we had when we got to the editing room. It became a very Zen experience for us; unlike Baraka, we didn’t cut using sound and music. We cut the images together, then started constructing blocks of images around certain themes. From there, it was matter of seeing how those blocks fit together.
How many hours of footage did you end up with?
Mark Magidson: We had 20 hours of footage, shot over the course of five years. But it was a very targeted 20 hours. Because we were shooting 65mm film, we couldn’t just roll the cameras on everything and shoot for hours on end, the way you can with digital. You could say we were actually being very minimalist. [Laughs]
Given that you shot Samsara on 65mm film and you’ve been big proponents of using film, do you feel that something is being lost as digital cinematography starts to overtake as the norm?
Ron Fricke: If you have a background in shooting with actual celluloid stock, what you’ve learned from that experience never really goes away. I was just in Vietnam shooting a commercial on video with a 5D still camera, but I was still looking through a lens, still framing a shot, still handling it as if it were a 70mm camera. I appreciate the new technology, and we might have used it for this if it had been where it’s at now five years ago. It just wasn’t as good in 2007.
Mark Magidson: That being said, when you look at what we shot projected on 65mm film… There’s really nothing like it.
Ron Fricke: We don’t have actors, dialogue or a main character; the imagery is our main character. So to have the fidelity and the richness that you get when you shoot 65 or 70mm film, it draws the character out of those visuals. That’s key to a film like this.
People have been referring to this as a sequel to Baraka. Was it designed as a sequel?
Mark Magidson: Yeah, I’m not sure why people would call it that; you could say it’s a follow-up, maybe. But it’s a fairly different movie.
Ron Fricke: That’s just Hollywood talk, Mark. [Laughs]
Was the process similar to how you made Baraka?
Ron Fricke: We were a bit more fearless this time. We knew we were going to do another nonverbal, epic nonfiction film, and that it’d be just as tough as the last time. But given that we’d done a film like this, we didn’t have those moments of, Oh, is this going to skew okay in the end?
Mark Magidson: I’d say we trusted that we’d eventually find the film this time out. With Baraka, we really weren’t shown what was going to happen when we went out to shoot—so you hoped you got what you needed. With this, we had faith that the images would eventually come together, often in unexpected and amazing ways. We were much more relaxed. [Pause] As relaxed as you can be when you’re shooting in 25 countries. [Laughs]
So what’s the deal with that incredible sequence of the dancing prisoners?
Ron Fricke: Everybody mentions this scene. It’s Cebu Prison in the Philippines; that dance you see in the film is what they do in the yard for exercise, as well as a form of rehabilitation therapy.
Mark Magidson: The warden is this very eccentric guy who instituted this program that requires the prisoners to dance to show tunes or Michael Jackson songs several hours a day. He claims that it keeps everyone in shape, thus reducing aggression, and since it forces the convicts to work together, it’s severely curbed epidemics of violence in the prison. We shot that sequence over several days, and tried to capture it with as many graceful camera movements and set-ups as possible. [Composer] Michael Stearns wrote the piece we used; we couldn’t use the MC Hammer song they were actually dancing to, for a variety of reasons. But they love American music and Michael Jackson. It’s been seamlessly assimilated into their culture.
American pop music is the world’s lingua franca.
Mark Magidson: You are probably right.
What inspires you both to keep coming back to this nonverbal, imagistic documentary form?
Ron Fricke: I think Mark and I feel that we haven’t quite got it right yet! [Laughs] Maybe one day.
Mark Magidson: Maybe one year!
Ron Fricke: You do learn a lot when you embark upon these projects, and you want to build on what you’ve done in the past. Essentially, though, it’s the need to keep on trying to reveal the essence and flow of what it’s like to live on this planet.
Mark Magidson: I agree. If you had to say that movies like Samsara or Baraka were “about” anything, they are about interconnectedness. They are attempts to say something about the human experience without the barriers of language or dialect.
Ron Fricke: We tried to show something like that with King Tut’s death mask, which we purposefully showed near the film’s beginning. This is the face of death looking back at you from eternity; then you see all these people from different countries, different walks of life staring straight into the camera—the same look that Tut’s mask has. All these portraits of living people mirror that image. It’s all part of something much, much bigger.
Do either of you worry that you may be accused of simplifying complex situations by turning them into pretty pictures?
Mark Magidson: We approach these films with great respect and reverence for everybody that appears in front of our camera, so I don’t worry about that, really. We’re not coming from an exploitative or mean-spirited place. We’re not trying to make political points here, or make a case for what’s good and what’s bad. But we’re also aware that it’s a fine line between trying to bring the essence out of an image versus editorializing.
I’m not saying you’re being exploitative. But by including sequences of, say, people working in a factory in some industrialized country without any context, don’t you run the risk of being a little reductive?
Ron Fricke: I see your point. I think we set ourselves up for this kind of criticism, because when we show up to shoot in an industrialized chicken factory in China, we really aren’t shooting a documentary about the chicken factory. People could attack us for not commenting on what’s really going on—but that’s not the movie we’re making. We’re just trying to show something that actually exists out there and how that may relate to a lot of other aspects of the world, philosophically and spiritually. We’re not trying to force some sort of ideology down an audience’s throat. It’s more like, Hey, there’s a vast, amazing world out there; we all got invited to this mud ball spinning in space here. Life is the host, and no one approved the guest list, so we should probably try to get along a bit more.
Mark Magidson: It’s a short visit, so don’t waste your time.
Ron Fricke: Don’t beat each other up; try dancing together in the yard, people.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfearSamsara opens Fri 24 at Landmark’s Sunshine.