Filmed for over five years in 25 countries and on 70mm, "Samsara" can most simply be described as an experience. There are no words, just a driving score; no characters, just startlingly honest portraits; no sets, just a global stage.
The title, a Sanskrit word that translates into “the ever turning wheel of life,” is the center point around which a 99 minute series of moving images revolves, each one remote, unusual, and absolutely beautiful in some way. Sound like a tall order? It is.
Director and cinematographer Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson are practiced at this nonverbal visual art form, though. In fact, having together made two other films of the same breed before – "Chronos" (1985) and "Baraka" (1992) – it’s safe to say they’ve mastered it. Here, the two discuss how they made their creation about creation.
Added with your past two films, "Samsara" is your third time producing this sort of visual global journey. What’s new about it?
Magidson: The films have the same approach and style of filmmaking, but they’re based on different overall concepts. There’s a lot more portraits in this film than "Baraka." It’s a lot more about people in a way, wouldn’t you say?
Fricke: "Baraka" was about humanity’s relationship to the eternal, you could say. And "Samsara" – another guided meditation, I like to call it – is on the subjects of birth, death and rebirth. It’s all about how things are interconnected, the flow.
That’s no small theme. How do you even begin tackling an idea like that?
Fricke: Well, we knew how we wanted to open and close the film – with monks making the sand mandala. Once we shot it, we knew we were in great shape.
Magidson: Getting the bookends sounds good in theory, but you have to get out there, and it has to rise to a level of visual stature. But it did. We had one shot at it, and that was very stressful, but we pulled it off. Once that was done, I think we were a lot more relaxed making this film than "Baraka." We knew the structure was in the bag.
Fricke: It was just a matter of moving around the planet to work on our content. No screenplay, no scenario; a concept. But we knew we could do it.
Magidson: We were pretty fearless.
And then you continued to film for five years. Without a cast of characters or narrative arc to follow, do you ever begin to feel lost trying to sort through that enormous amount of footage?
Fricke: Really, the image is the main character. It’s about the essence of these places and portraits.
Magidson: It’s like still photography, this imagery. It has an energy and power within it, and that’s what you’re making the film with. We’re out for so long, but when you average it out, it’s not a lot of content per location. It takes a lot to build up that kind of dazzling visual imagery to make a film like this work for 99 minutes.
Fricke: That’s why we shot it in 70 [mm film]. It gives you the fidelity that digital can’t match.