The follow up to Ron Fricke’s spellbinding Baraka (reviewed here) is similarly beautiful and haunting. Once again taking the approach of combining amazing visuals with a diverse and multi-layered soundtrack (largely composed by Dead Can Dance singer Lisa Gerard), Samsara sets out to further Fricke’s examination of our world and how it lives at odds with its natural surrounds. I reviewed Baraka pretentiously, and I make no exception for Samsara.
Whereas Baraka had a message of hope, suggesting that no matter what happens in the future, we will have made our mark for better or worse, Samsara instead ups the cautionary side of its thematic tale. It is a little more heavy-handed in its approach to its subject than its predecessor, but the argument could easily be made that this is not a bad thing; the simple truth, as this film points out, is that as a race, we are consuming the planet like a plague of oversized locusts.
By far the most striking (and as such, upsetting) sequence of the film deals with food preparation on a mass scale. We see factories making pre-packaged stuffed-pastries – the process is fascinating but distinctly unappetising – but it’s nothing compared to the following images. Factory tables piled up with the slop of meat, fresh from the slaughterhouse en masse, pens full of hens, packed in their thousands, being spirited away through some bizarre sweeping device down a factory belt to their doom, piglets sucking at the teats of overfed sows that have grown so large in their captivity that they conform to the rectangular blocks of their holding cells, before we see their headless carcasses being shipped along a row of workers crudely preparing them for further shipping. The visual cacophony descends into images of a food-court and bulk-groceries store, where we see similarly oversized humans consuming, eating the foods we’ve just seen processed almost without rhyme, reason or ritual.
It’s some of the more confrontational images I’ve seen, but all nest perfectly within a PG rating. I certainly don’t feel like rushing out to eat a hamburger at the moment, and it’s a slap in the face to see just how much we produce and consume from and to a giant market. It’s quite terrifying.
Other themes of consumption are addressed in the presence of sex. We see a group of mannequins being crafted, headless – only to then notice the obvious space between their legs to insert various types of orifices. The detail made on these sex dolls is startling, and its contrasted with a carousel of women dancing in bikinis – not for their enjoyment, but for commercial display, as evidenced by their numerical tags. Furthermore, as the credits reveal, this is a “ladyboy cabaret” – and they’re clearly not just for show. Their smiles are controlled and deliberate – there’s no joy in their eyes, just work. And it’s immediately contrasted against the heads for those mannequins – childlike and terrified, in ways that are just too wrong to fully comprehend.
But Samsara doesn’t only target our consumption or horrors of the world. It celebrates dance, life, love and joy where it can be found in the world. It reminds us of the culture and vitality in the world, and ultimately how fragile it all is. One of the more haunting pictures, something of a successor to Baraka’s “silent shout” man has a business man cover his face in pristine grey mud, before decorating it cruelly with black eyes and red lips – it’s bizarre and disjointed, but oddly beautiful in its oddness.
A simple image bookends the film – a group of monks working around a stone table, delicately and precisely pouring out different coloured grains of sand to create a stunningly beautiful tapestry. It’s utterly breathtaking to see. At the end of the film, it’s swept up into a pile, and the monks group all the sand into a simple bowl, destroying what was there and funnelling it into a container that looks too small in contrast with how amazing the picture was before.
Those two images alone are something of a thesis statement for the film. There is beauty in the world, and it is amazing, but it’s not permanent.
Samsara is not condemning us in the same way that Koyaanisqatsi did, but nor is it as inviting to the world as Baraka was. Of the two, I believe Baraka is the better film, possibly because it’s more hopeful. There is plenty of hope, and love, to be found in the visuals of Samsara, but it’s also more than aware that by our own brutality, that joy won’t last forever, or perhaps, for long at all.