Samsara is an example of that strange beast, the non-narrative documentary. We’ve seen films like this before, with Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s Home as a recent example. Unlike that film, however, the makers of Samsara claim to want to avoid making political comment, and see their film as a spiritual journey across the globe. Samsara refers to the pattern of life, death and rebirth, impermanence, found in religions such as Buddhism, and the film is bookended with scenes of Tibetan Buddhist monks creating and destroying a sand mandala, representative of these themes.
With images gleaned from 25 countries over four years, Samsara is certainly an epic achievement. Filmed in sumptuous 70mm, director Ron Fricke captures scenes of incredible beauty. It is sometimes hard to believe the spectacle, and the sense of wonder it instils is the film’s greatest achievement. For the most part there is a lack of order in the images on show, thus offering a view of the world as a single holistic entity, rather than a patchwork of separate nations. Even the divisive power of the West Bank barrier is symbolically removed by an overhead shot.
Among the plethora of memorable images, several are particularly potent: a house half buried by a sandstorm, the hall of mirrors at Versailles, houses wrecked by flood. At times Samsara feels haunted, the camera too invasive, but it can also be playful: images are sped up or slowed down, and the sweeping score sometimes changes unexpectedly to suit the images on screen. A powerful and disconcerting non-sequitur sees French artist Olivier de Sagazan repeatedly covering his face in clay and fashioning new features with make-up, before tearing this off and then plastering on another. Whether this was a deliberate reference to the title concept or not I couldn’t say, but it leaves a lasting impression.
The most visually arresting scenes are those which capture acres of people moving in unison, from the whirling soup of pilgrims around the Kaaba at Mecca, captured from a stunning high angle, to that familiar footage of orange jumpsuit-ed prisoners dancing to Soulja Boy, via identikit uniformed factory employees moving like a train of caterpillars. Human beings are as much a part of the natural beauty as the rugged mountains and thundering waterfalls.
Despite the filmmakers’ claims, there are moments where images are deliberately juxtaposed to pass comment, and at such points Samsara is at its weakest. One sequence matching images of Geisha girls and exotic dancers to dolls and sex toys is particularly clumsy. The film is at its best when it is being dispassionate, the camera moving across piles of bullets in much the same way as it moves across sand dunes. Better that we decide for ourselves where our investment lies – vegetarians will undoubtedly be shocked by scenes of industrial chicken farming, carnivores like myself probably less so.
Samsara presents a beautiful picture of our world today, and for the most part avoids passing judgement on our place within it. It will not be to everyone’s tastes, but it is an impressive piece of documentary filmmaking that will only grow in stature in years to come.