Cinematic poetry can be scoffed at, labeled pretentious, and thoroughly dismissed without a second thought. But somehow, Ron Fricke’s “Baraka,” a “non-verbal documentary” that uses time-lapse photography and impressionable ambulatory cinematography to chart the human race through more than twenty countries managed to move even those who hold the “art-film” label with serious vehemence. The film is one of a handful of documentaries that favor visual tone over language (with absolutely no interviews or narration), a small clique that includes Godfrey Reggio’s “Qatsi Trilogy” to Fricke’s own short-form “Chronos.” They don’t come around often — and aside from researching and trekking all over the world, we can only assume they’re difficult to finance due to their nature — but when they do, cinema-goers can be assured they’re in for something exceptionally unique.
So, good thing there’s one around the corner. Nearly two decades after “Baraka,” Fricke and producer/collaborator Mark Magidson have come back with “Samsara,” a film they describe as a “guided meditation” on the core concept of life, death, and rebirth. Shot in 70mm, the film is positively jaw-dropping; we caught the film at this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival and called it a “truly special cinematic experience.” We got a chance to discuss the movie with the two filmmakers, with topics ranging from locations that slipped from their grasps to how they even begin to work on such an ambitious project. Check it out below, and don’t miss it: “Samsara” starts rolling into theaters today.
Beginning of the Beginning
"Samsara" and its movie-kin are such unique beasts that it's a wonder they even get made at all — financials aside, the beginnings of such an endeavor are mysterious. "We started with the concept of the imagery, and that directed our research to locations," Magidson explained, noting that they used everything from professional researchers to YouTube videos to find the perfect environments. "We're not shooting documentaries every place we go, we're just looking for a few images that will pull the essence out of the area we're in." As for what they're exactly looking for in a location, Fricke described their selections as being based on a "guided meditation on the concepts of birth, death, and rebirth."
Structure Of The Heart
Cracking the framework is also difficult, especially without having any script of sorts with them. After "Baraka," though, they came to terms with the fact that most of the film would have to be done in the editing room. "We've been through these things, and you realize that these films are made in the editing process based on the reality of the imagery that you've collected. Inherently that makes you pretty nervous, but having been through that experience I think we were just more relaxed with this," explained Magidson. Fricke also noted that the Mandala sand paintings that open and close the movie were a relief, giving "Samsara" a solid through-line. "Once we got that, we knew we had the book-end, which was the hardest part of the film, how to open and close." After that, the two would edit chunks together and focus on the power of flow (rather than narrative), throwing various "blocks" together to see what made sense where. "You just let the images tell you how to work with them. In the end, it all got in there. We didn't leave anything on the cutting room floor, really," Fricke stated with a chuckle.
North Korea Says No
While the pair had more confidence for "Samsara" than they did shooting their previous films due to their experience, location scouting turned out to be much more difficult this time around. "It's much easier for people to say no now. There's a lot more concern; they ask whether it will make them look bad or not," Magidson said, specifically referring to the poultry factory they ultimately shot in China. All locations managed to come together, but one notoriously secret place couldn't. "We got really close to shooting in North Korea, but we just couldn't get over that hump," sighed the producer. "That's one that we have regrets about not securing."
The Benefits Of 70mm
Recently, there has been discussion over securing theaters for Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," a production also shot on 70mm film but unable to find cinemas with the proper projectors. Seeing as "Samsara" also used this size film stock, we wondered if the filmmakers found themselves in a similar debacle. "I heard about this controversy, and though we don't know much about it, we sort of have a different animal anyway. We wanted to use a 60-year-old camera technology with the cutting edge digital technology from the get-go: shoot it on the best format, put it in a digital world, refine the image a bit, and output it in a super high quality DCP digital projection," explained Magidson. "I guess I would bristle at being referred to as 'not a film purist,' but there's so many advantages present in digital. Besides, we've shot more 70mm than anyone I know, so don't tell me we're not film purists."
"Honestly, we're concerned with the pursuit of excellence, and we think that this is the best way to do this," he added. But as for shooting on digital, they still believe celluloid is the best way to go. "When we started this four or five years ago, digital cameras just weren't ready to go on the road. The best they had was 2k. It'll get better, but now there's nothing like capturing images on this stock, it's just the best way, even now."
"We're thinking about doing a romantic-comedy…" Fricke delivered in a dead-pan fashion, pausing before letting out a laugh. Don't count on seeing the duo heading down the narrative path any time soon, as the director thinks they're best suited for projects akin to "Samsara." "Eh, there's so many great filmmakers out there making dialogue-narrative films. This stuff is in our blood." But will we have to wait another twenty years for a new film? The two wouldn't say anything concrete, though Fricke teased that "there's still another world, and therefore another non-verbal epic due. For sure."