Samsara Review

1000 Hands

Still from SAMSARA. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

What is Samsara?

Samsara is the new film by Ron Fricke. It’s a compilation of real time video and time-lapse sequences that attempts to form a narrative without words. It’s not a documentary, but it feels closer to that than any other type of film making. Here’s what the official site has to say:

Filmed over a period of almost five years and in twenty-five countries, SAMSARA transports us to sacred grounds, disaster zones, industrial sites, and natural wonders. By dispensing with dialogue and descriptive text, SAMSARA subverts our expectations of a traditional documentary, instead encouraging our own inner interpretations inspired by images and music that infuses the ancient with the modern.

Who’s Ron Fricke?

In time-lapse forums, Ron Fricke is mentioned as one of the best time-lapse cinematographers and the inspiration for many careers. His movie, Baraka (IMDB), inspired me to try time-lapse years later. It was released in 1992, long before digital cameras made it easy for hobbiests to make stunning time-lapse videos. Baraka showed me a world that was invisible to the naked eye and where chaos congealed into patterns.

Time-lapse in the Age of Digital Production

Instead of using the newest digital gear, Fricke and producer Mark Magidson used 70mm film for the entire movie. My question going into the movie was whether there was still some magic to be found in time-lapse now that it’s found in every other car commercial and in thousands of online videos. After watching the movie, I feel the answer is “sort of.”

Let me be clear–if you’re interested in creating time-lapse videos and want to know if this movie is worth seeing, the answer is yes. See it on the big screen if possible, then buy it or rent it and watch it a few times once it comes out on video. I’m sure I’ll replay and examine many sequences to guess at exposure length, timing, and framing to benefit my own time-lapse.

The colors are the first thing you’ll notice in this movie. Film still has a richness that digital can’t match. However, some shots were conspicuously absent. The night shots, for example, always included a bright moon, which makes me wonder if film is capable of capturing the low light images available to lower end DSLRs.

Subject Matter

This movie has plenty of landscape eye candy, but Fricke shows us beauty in the mundane. Among scenes of Mont Blanc and The Great Pyramids are shots of people on exercise bikes and checkout lines at Costco.

What’s missing is HDR, tilt-shift, and frenetic edits. Even motion control dollies are used sparingly. The internet demands ever faster and shorter cuts where movement never stops–the type of edits that would make Baz Luhrmann’s head spin. It was a nice change to sit in a theater and give my full attention to deliberate time-lapse.

Be warned that some scenes of meat plants elicited sounds of revulsion from the audience in my showing, although that’s probably to be expected in San Francisco. And the film can get heavy-handed at times. The odd beauty of food production is followed by slow-motion scenes of obese dinners at a fast food restaurant, as if to tell you how to feel. There’s also a performance art piece around the middle that breaks up the continuity and goes on for too long.

Despite these things, Samsara is still a beautiful piece of art worth seeing for anyone who loves film. It’s a labor of love that not only makes you wonder how it was captured, but how it ever got funded.

Click below for the official trailer or check out this article in The Atlantic for a behind-the-scenes look at how five scenes were captured.

SAMSARA The Concept from Baraka & Samsara on Vimeo.

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