A Documentary

  • Directed by Ron Fricke

How do you describe a feature-length, non-fiction motion picture without a story or words? How do you discuss something that works entirely on a sensory, emotional level, and yet still has a lot to say?

Let me start with this: I sat, enraptured, throughout Samsara’s entire 102 minutes, my eyes and mouth open in astonishment. When I wasn’t overwhelmed with the beauty of nature, or with the more spiritual beauty of humanity, I was appalled by my species’ utter disregard for other animals, other people, and the planet that we all must live on.

If you’ve seen Fricke’s previous opus, Baraka, you have some idea what you’re in for–a succession of stunningly beautiful, and occasionally shocking images, accompanied by a hypnotic musical score and almost no other sound. He likes landscapes, rituals, cities, and images of dehumanization. Although there’s no real story, it’s structured like one. Or if not a story, then at least a journey. You definitely feel as if you have travelled somewhere and returned home by the end. And in a very real sense, you have.


With a small crew and a large camera, Fricke traveled the world, filming people and scenery, often in slow motion. Among other locations, he shot in Israel, South Korea, France, Egypt, Japan, the United Arab Eremites, and several of the United States of America.

One of Fricke’s best techniques is to shoot a person straight on, and have them simply look directly into the camera. He does this with Asian factory workers, Africans still living traditional lives in the bush, and an American soldier with a severely deformed face. Sometimes they look curious, sometimes tough, and often show no emotion, at all. But you can’t avoid their eyes or their humanity.

Among Samsara‘s most striking images:

  • Buddhist monks painstakingly creating an enormous and beautiful sand painting.
  • Deserted houses filled with sand and debris, with broken computers, TVs, and cars left behind.
  • Canyon walls so close together they felt more like a sunlit cave.
  • The baptisms of babies and young children, shot in slow motion to truly catch their emotional response. The ritual appeared to scare the babies but delight the toddlers and pre-schoolers.
  • Factory workers, filmed in fast motion, going about their endlessly boring work.
  • Very large, fat pigs, laying on their sides in cages designed to keep them from standing up, as their babies fought for a teet.
  • The funeral of a young black man, buried in a coffin designed to look like a handgun.

As he did with Baraka, Fricke shot Samsara in the 70mm format, providing a level of detail impossible to capture digitally or with standard 35mm film. Unfortunately, both currently announced Bay Area engagements will show it in 35mm, which loses a good deal of the image quality (this is how I saw it). But thanks to that large negative, it still looks better than any other 35mm print you’re likely to see. No 70mm prints will be made, but producer Mark Magidson has stated that 4K DCP (the best digital format) looks better than a 70mm print, and is the optimal way to see Samsara. Unfortunately, outside of megaplexes that would never show this kind of picture, there are to my knowledge no 4K theaters in the Bay Area. (For more on this, see When You Least Expect It: The Return of 70mm.)

But even in 35mm, Samsara is not a film to be missed. It belongs on the big screen, and will stay in your heart.