I get a bit pretentious here, but it’s rare for a film to inspire me as much, as often and as continuously as Baraka.
There’s a large number of reasons one can enjoy a film, be it the staging, the dialogue, the characters or a whole bunch of other elements that go into that marvellous little beast we call cinema.
You’ll find none of them here.
But first a little history! In 1982, Godfrey Reggio released a film called Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance. In addition to being the hardest film to request from the video store clerk who is stoned 90% of the time and a dumbass the other 10%, it’s quite a patronising little film. It is entirely sound and image, no dialogue whatsoever. It shows the world, through all of its natural wonders, but progresses to show man-made endeavours, such as nuclear power stations and skyscrapers imposing on a wide sky. The overall message is “look at how humans rape the earth and aren’t you all terrible?”
It does have an incredible soundtrack, and that has probably survived more than the rest of the film. For instance, the incredible sequence in Watchmen which details the origins of Dr. Manhattan uses music from the film, and the leitmotif that accompanies the Janitor in Scrubs is in fact “Koyaanisqatsi” being chanted.
Roger Ebert raised a good point that the film inadvertently makes you realise how much humanity has accomplished since its humble beginnings. That’s a sensibility that’s much better followed up upon in Baraka.
Baraka comes to us courtesy of Ron Fricke, who was the cinematographer for Koyaanisqatsi. And while his work in Koyaanisqatsi was pretty amazing, it’s nothing compared to what he accomplished in Baraka. Quite simply, and this is not said lightly, Baraka is the most beautiful film I have ever seen. Currently, it is the highest quality picture one can see via BluRay, due to a lengthy and devoted remastering of the image. It’s worth it.
“Baraka” means blessing in several languages (none of them Tarkatan) and this is a good thing to keep in mind when watching the film. It’s pointless to try and describe what happens in the film, because its essence is in seeing it – so I’ll try to describe the experience of watching it. Unlike Koyaanisqatsi, which comes off as being something of a particularly pompous screensaver, Baraka is a film that gets inside you, and reaches parts of your soul you don’t visit too often.
It’s a film that shows us the world and takes us there without you ever leaving your seat. You’ll discover different walks of life and walk alongside them, gasp at the worst remnants of ours (and their) history, take joy in the most wondrous of sights and reflect on the little blue planet we all find ourselves strapped to as it hurdles across the universe.
That may be laying it on a little pretentiously thick, but I feel ok with that, because it’s a film that deserves to be spoken of in awe.
The film is not all roses, and it does show us some of the problems we live with in the world, whether it’s the more obvious tragedies found in war museums and slums covered by starving people foraging for food, or even thousands upon thousands of workers slaving away at machines rolling cigarettes for the rest of the world.
But it also shows us the joy that people find in dancing, in their respective faiths, and in their own lives. It shows us the grace of nature, the power of it also, and the balance we all walk, living in a world that provides so much without too much notice.
When I was 17, I took a class at school that dealt with Australia’s place in the world, especially in relation to Asia – one of the things that was covered in detail was the way tourism belittles some rituals, such as the Kechak dance – which is shortened and reduced to make it more palatable for visiting tourists. In Baraka it is performed with no such violation, but with the obvious unity and sanctity of the tribe, something amazing to behold and to hold your gaze in wonder.
Later the film shows us heart rending scenes of hundreds of baby chickens being run along conveyor belts, confused and scared as despondent workers sort them into various tubes and chutes, until they’re dyed and branded and we’re confronted by the horrible image of what these adorable little chicks become – ghastly walls of battery hens robbed of any sort of life by the needs of the world. But far from being a PETA call to arms, it contrasts their plight with our own, stuffed into crowded cities, run along all day in the endless pursuit of the dollar and to what avail?
It’s also not a call to arms against the rat race, but more a show of what we all hold in common. It’s definitely not a mistake that the film can show us the claustrophobic confines of being herded into subway trains en masse and compare it with the solidarity and unity of thousands of pilgrims in Mecca, all walking towards one goal and point.
So the film provides us with hope and horror, wonder and awe, the best and worst of nature, humanity and civilisation. As the film ends, whirling across ancient ruins that stand the test of time and up into an endless night sky, we’re left with the impression that we’re not alone in all of this.
We may not have much in common with the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey, or the Balinese men performing the Kechak dance, but we’re all human, we’re all connected by being on the same rock in space, and everywhere we look there is life and vitality, along with all the ups and downs, the confusions and miracles and the despair and hope they bring.
I’m not particularly a man of faith, but if I had to believe in something, it would be Baraka.