by Alexandra Marie Daniels
Arts, Culture & Media Editor
The big picture is that we’ve all been invited here to this planet, life didn't ask anybody to approve of the guest list. We are all connected. – Ron Fricke, Director, Cinematographer, Co-editor and Co-writer Samsara.
When I set aside my dance career, my fascination for movement in time and space had not ended though my interests had shifted from the proscenium stage to film. At the time, I asked my friend James, a film producer, to please make me a list of must see films. The next morning I received an email with a list of five movies. The film Baraka was at the top of the list with a note that said “Watch this film on the big screen.”
It has been twenty years since filmmakers Mark Magidson and Ron Fricke created Baraka, and now their alchemy returns to theaters with another must-see-on-the-big-screen masterpiece Samsara.
Earlier this month, I attended a screening at The Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, California with my friend James, who had inspired me with Baraka years earlier. Moments after the film opened I abandoned my popcorn and slipped my journal back into my purse, acknowledging that “no, I would not be taking notes.” This film I would experience without distraction.
What followed for the next hour and a half was a visual and musical journey across 25 countries, through the lens of one of the premiere cinematographers of our time. Samsara, a Sanskrit word meaning “the ever turning wheel of life,” flows seamlessly across continents and cultures, through different environments, from the rural and desolate, to the dense and developed. Looking directly into the eyes of the film’s subjects, we are transported from untouched natural beauty to highly processed factory environments, visually connecting to the flow of this beautiful and sometimes brutal world we occupy together.
With the film’s images fresh in my mind, one week later, I sat down with producer Mark Magidson and director/cinematographer Ron Fricke. As a team, the two created, wrote, and edited Samsara. Like Baraka, the film is non-verbal. There is no dialogue, yet the film is far from silent. With a profoundly moving musical score by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci, the filmmakers describe their style of filmmaking as a “guided meditation.” Fricke explains the project “was based on the concepts of birth, death and rebirth. It’s really about the flow, that’s what we are trying to do, is guide you through it, the flow.” Magidson adds that their choice to work without dialogue allows for the film to remain an “inner experience,” flowing “seamlessly from scene to scene and shot to shot, and transitions so that you don’t come out of that into…an interruption where your brain starts working with an intellectual thought process.” For Fricke, this uninterrupted experience “is the inner connection that we are all a part of.”
With the confidence of two award-winning films behind them Magidson and Fricke were more relaxed making Samsara. “We wanted to go out with the new gear and new technology. Comparing to Baraka, Fricke says, “The opportunity was right to make a bigger film, a better film. It’s kind of scary to go out and make a film without a screenplay, or an actor, or dialogue…we did it once and got through that, so we were fearless.”
Magidson agrees, “We were a lot more relaxed this time. Ron [Fricke] shoots amazing imagery but…it’s a film, it’s not just the imagery. That structure had to come and it comes really in the editing process.” He explains that because it is non-fiction “you really don’t know what you’ve got until you see the totality of all the images you have, and feel how they can connect together in ways you can’t have written.”
The filmmakers traveled across five continents with 70mm film cameras, over the course of five years to make Samsara, yet reflecting on the process both are remarkably calm. When I asked about the challenges to making a film of this magnitude, Magidson replies “I think one of the big challenges is that you are up against the ability of so many people to view amazing visual images on the Internet now, and things have to rise to a level of visual interest and say ‘this is good enough, this is visually strong enough to consider including.’ It’s a higher bar than twenty years ago.”
All three films that Magidson and Fricke made together are photographed in 70mm (65mm negative). This type of large-format film has qualities that digital has not yet matched. “It’s just a dream to go out with 70mm cameras” shares Fricke. “It makes you slow down, think different, and work in a manner you wouldn’t digitally. You have got to know where you are going to put that camera and especially where you are going to put it next because it’s a lot to move around and you are very selective.” The filmmakers agree that “[digital cameras] are not catching up with a 65mm negative. [They] are close but still that negative has the fidelity, and the information in it that you are responding to. Since we don’t have actors or a story, the images are our main character. So we really want the essence of the landscape or that portrait to be there.”
With international security measures as they are today, moving film across borders is not as easy as it was twenty years ago. Magidson notes that “physically there are real challenges with getting films across borders and in and out of countries, without having it X-rayed. We had to courier it, FedEx, or DHL. You can’t take it with you like you could in Baraka. It’s not getting any easier, it’s harder.”
Despite these difficulties, the final creation demonstrates the value of working with this type of film. As Magidson explains in a note on the Samsara website “70mm brings an unsurpassed emotional impact to the viewing experience. There is a beauty, immediacy, and level of detail within imagery captured in this venerable wide-screen format that is unique, and there is still no form of image capture that compares to 65mm negative.”
Working together, the filmmakers “took a Zen approach” and edited Samsara in silence. They chose not to introduce the musicians until after they had completed the cut. “The images want to tell you how they go together if you just work with them,” Fricke explains “and that’s how you find the flow.”
By creating blocks of material and non-linear editing, the filmmakers were able try many different orders and variations. Again, the process is about the flow as Magidson explains. “The blocks move around, but it really forces you to focus on the structure and the flow of the imagery.” Returning to the choice of editing without music, he shares, “the music is a little bit of a crutch when you are editing. It masks potential issues or problems. So, not having it, when the music came in it just made it even better.”
The film score, which is worth purchasing on its own, took five to six months to create, longer than traditional standards of movie scoring. The musicians, Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci broke the film down into sequences and created the music piece by piece. Magidson smiles when talking about the musicians. “Marcello is just a terrific musician - a technical musician and a very passionate guy. He and Lisa [Gerrard] worked together on about half the music and Michael [Stearns] worked on the other half.” Using licensed pieces to build upon, Fricke explains how Michael “would find the licensed pieces, and we started to lay that in first and see how it felt as they were composing.” In the end “what we got was real music.”
Like its title, the film Samsara illustrates the theme of impermanence and our global interconnectedness. The filmmakers hope that audiences will walk away from the film experiencing the flow of this connection. Talking with Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson, it is clear that they have experienced evolution in their own lives and they have brought this to their filmmaking. Reflecting for a moment Fricke observes that life is “more than just putting digits in a bank account.”
Samsara is NOT the film to wait until it comes out on DVD. With the benefit of Samsara not needing translation, the film is screening in the US, Europe, and Canada. The filmmakers encourage people to see this film in a nice theater environment where, in Magidson’s words, “they can really feel the intention of what is behind the film on a big screen and great sound.”
About the author:
Alexandra Marie Daniels is a writer, dancer, and filmmaker. Born in California, at age 17 she moved to New York City, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College. She choreographed and taught with Jacques D'Amboise's National Dance Institute and in 2000 returned to Sarah Lawrence to receive her Master of Fine Arts degree in dance. In 2007, Ms. Daniels attended the Los Angeles Film School and has since been working in film. She has made three films with the director Bernard Rose, including The Kreutzer Sonata (2008) and Mr. Nice (2010) and has worked with the director Martyn Atkins as a script supervisor on concerts such as Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Live from Madison Square Garden and The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010. She is the Arts, Culture, & Media Editor for The WIP.