Samsara: Camera sees life flash by

By Peter Calder

An eye-popping visual feast also reveals rampant consumerism and environmental degradation, writes Peter Calder

Samsara was shot on 70mm film to capture a richness digital filming simply can't. Photo / Supplied
Samsara was shot on 70mm film to capture a richness digital filming simply can't. Photo / Supplied

Making moving images as intensely rich and clear as still ones is Mark Magidson's reason for being. The American producer of Samsara, which opened in cinemas this week, says he and director Ron Fricke went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the shots they captured were of the same standard as great still photography.

Samsara, like 1992's Baraka, which the pair also made, is a visually ravishing non-narrative documentary that takes viewers on an eye-popping tour of some of the many worlds on Earth.

Shot over five years in almost 100 locations in 25 countries, it captures footage of what looks like randomly connected events and sites: a golf driving range, a slum, a chicken factory, a Buddhist temple.

Magidson and Fricke's first collaboration, Chronos, in 1985, was only 40 minutes long because that was the limit of the Imax format - then state of the art for high-resolution cinematic projection. The quantum leap in digital projection in the generation since has changed all that. The movie is shot on 70mm film - "It's so rich, digital doesn't touch it," says Magidson - and scanned before being digitally edited and output in a 2.4:1 format.

"We love that wide look on the big screen. Shooting on film, there's a big logistical price to pay in terms of the hassles of moving stuff in and out of countries compared to 1992 when we made Baraka. We used to carry it with us, but now it would be X-rayed, so we have to ship it. But when you get back, you have footage in a format that is going to stand up for ever."

The digital projection, by contrast, is steadier because there is no movement of film through the gate of a projector: this allows for an intimacy, particularly in the many shots in which subjects stare straight into the camera, that film does not achieve.

"It's about taking film-making technique further," says Magidson, "but what's underneath it all is the desire to express something artistically about the life experience that we all share."

So what is that something? The film's title, the producer explains, is a Sanskrit word that refers to the cycle of birth, death and rebirth common to Buddhism and Hinduism. Its correlative is the notion of impermanence - a fundamental idea in Buddhism.

"That is what guided us. We were looking for images that reflected the transitory nature of life. But we wanted to provide an experience that people felt connected to."

That said, they were careful to avoid the temptation to editorialise. "We tried not to give a strong view as film-makers. Some of the material is political in nature - guns and factory farming and so on - but we try not to steer the viewer. We walk the line. Sometimes maybe we get over the line a little bit. But we are trying to be restrained."

To a good Buddhist, of course, there is nothing that, clearly contemplated, does not exemplify the transitory nature of life. For this viewer, one of Samsara's strongest and most dispiriting impressions was the ways it documented rampant consumerism and its flip side, environmental degradation. Magidson says everyone will make a different meaning of the film.

There's a commendable absence of trickery in post-production to be found here. Time-lapse photography and slow frame-rate shooting (to create a sped-up finished product) was done in camera and, Magidson says, "occasionally we took a bird off a statue's head", but for the most part we see what they saw.

Sometimes, we've seen it before: Jennifer Baichwal's Manufactured Landscapes opened on the mile-long small-appliance factory in China that also features here. The sulphur miners of Ijen in Indonesia were more pointedly depicted in Austrian Michael Glawogger's 2005 film Workingman's Death.

"We were not trying to avoid images that have been seen before," Magidson says. "There's a sequence in a prison that we found on YouTube, though I think we did a better job. We borrow from other people, sure, but we just try to film it well and do it in an honourable way. We wanted to make a film that has an arc and makes sense without words. And that's what we worked really hard at trying to pull off."

Who: Mark Magidson, producer
What: Samsara, a non-narrative documentary in the vein of Baraka. In cinemas now

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