Samsara (2011) film review

By Wei Jie Koh, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio

Samsara (2011) by Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson is a visual journey across five continents and twenty-five countries, featuring exquisitely captured natural and man-made environments. Recorded on IMAX-worthy 70mm film, the film shines aesthetically with captivating scenes of human activity, magnificent time-lapse cinematography, and a soundtrack that reflects the broad cultural diversity of its subjects. Although it is entirely non-verbal and non-narrative, Samsara presents an unmistakably clear message about cycles of birth, life, and death. Simultaneously (and perhaps paradoxically), it invites viewers to interpret it for themselves.

Without an explicit narrative to convey meaning, Samsara relies on scenes that feature motifs of cycles, flow, and hierarchy. They include repetitious human activity in modern society; the creation, consumption, and disposal of material goods; cosmic and geologic cycles; as well as human birth and death. Most tellingly, this film is named after the mainly Buddhist and Hindu religious concept of birth, suffering, and rebirth.

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The film’s time-lapse cinematography is key to establishing these ideas. By compressing and condensing mundane and drawn-out events, they insert a sense of overarching perspective into the enormity and timelessness (or, depending on context, insignificance and ephemerality) of human life, artificial constructs, and even the natural environment. Take for instance these engrossing and almost hypnotic time-lapse sequences: one of a motionless, moonlit dead acacia tree in the middle of a vast Namibian salt flat, immobile in juxtaposition to a thousand stars arcing across the sky, and another that traces electronic goods from production (birth) in a massive factory-city in Xiamen, China, to a recycling facility in Fresno, California (rebirth), or abandonment (suffering) on the electronic-waste-lined streets of Accra, Ghana.

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Religious rites that allude to the idea of cycles form a significant portion of screen time, and also support the bulk of its intended message. One scene shows the construction of an incredibly detailed sand mandala (through backbreaking and tedious work by monks in a remote Tibetan monastery) and its subsequent destruction by its creators. Another such scene is a brilliantly executed time-lapse shot from a forty-story building overlooking Mecca’s Grand Mosque, presenting the Islamic ritual of Tawaf, in which pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba as part of the Hajj. When viewed in the context of authorial intent (“Samsara explores the wonders of our world from the mundane to the miraculous, looking into the unfathomable reaches of man’s spirituality and the human experience.”), it is evident that the film-makers have appropriated the abstract, yet inherently non-religious, concept of natural and artificial cycles, to convey a more metaphysical statement about spirituality and humankind’s place in the universe.

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This film’s strongest message, however, is much harsher. Scenes of socio-economic inequality and patriarchy show stark realities of daily life for people living in poverty, while others in richer countries suffer from morbid obesity as a direct result of overconsumption. A prison guard looms authoritatively in the shadows overlooking a Cebu prison yard, watching the CPDRC dancing inmates of Youtube fame perform for their own “rehabilitation” (Female inmates are notably absent from the performance and are shown as mere spectators, literally behind bars.) A sex doll factory in Japan cuts to transgender nightclub dancers in Bangkok, alluding to the growing commodification and artificiality of the human body (although the use of transgender subjects for this particular characterisation is objectionable). These scenes may allude to the fact that suffering is part of the Buddhist concept of Samsara, and that it is a global phenomenon that affects people of all walks of life.

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Perhaps the starkest contradiction in Samsara is its uncritical and sweeping association of religious themes with wisdom and beauty, and modernity with depravity and destruction, while purporting to bring reality to screen. Can the authors honestly claim that religious institutions are free from abusive hierarchical structures of power that their own work so strongly condemns? Although the film-makers encourage viewers to form their own “inner interpretations” of the film, perhaps the game is already rigged in favour of new-age religious syncretism, a feel-good fetishisation of poverty, or a snobbish clamour towards who can express the strongest overview effect.

Nevertheless, with its brilliant cinematography, multi-layered messages, and bold scope, Samsara offers hours of enjoyment and contemplation. Viewers with a keen eye for detail and knack for critical interpretation will find this film immensely enriching.

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