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Copernicus previews SBIFF with a review of SAMSARA, sequel to BARAKA!!


Roger Ebert had this to say about BARAKA, which warmed by cold astronomer heart:

“If man sends another Voyager to the distant stars and it can carry
only one film on board, that film might be BARAKA.   It uses no
language, so needs no translation. It speaks in magnificent images,
natural sounds, and music both composed and discovered. It regards our
planet and the life upon it. It stands outside of historical time....
The restored 2008 Blu-ray is the finest video disc I have ever viewed
or ever imagined...  ‘Baraka’ by itself is sufficient reason to
acquire a Blu-ray player.”

Film fans, we are in luck, after 19 years, director Ron Fricke has
produced a sequel, of sorts, to BARAKA, and that film is SAMSARA.  One
of the highlights of this year’s Santa Barbara International Film
Festival, which starts Thursday, is the American premiere of SAMSARA
on Feb. 1.  I was lucky enough to catch it last year at the Toronto
Film Festival, so in preparation for SBIFF, I’ll share my thoughts on

If you aren’t familiar with BARAKA, you might know its ancestor,
KOYAANISQATSI (Fricke was the cinematographer), or its sequels
POWAQQATSI or NAQOYQATSI .  They are nonnarrative films that pair
music with short segments of stunning visuals that reveal something
profound about humans, nature, technology, civilization, or how all
intersect in the modern world.  Think the nature scenes from TREE OF
LIFE, the mind-boggling time-lapse shots from PLANET EARTH, or similar
clips involving crowds of people, or city life.  They are devoid of
narrative, and set to music that’s just as beautiful.  Philip Glass
did the music to KOYAANISQATSI, and if you don’t own the soundtrack,
you’ve no doubt heard parts of it (for example, in WATCHMEN, or its
trailer), or heard its influence in the TRON LEGACY score by Daft
Punk.  Michael Stearns, who scored BARAKA, is back for SAMSARA, along
with contributions from Marcello De Francisci and Lisa Gerrard.

Impressionistic in spirit, high definition in execution, SAMSARA is
like the God’s-eye view of life on Earth, from the sublime to the
staggering.  A few examples of scenes:  monks creating a mandala out
of colored grains of sand, the boiling cauldrons of Yosemite, Balinese
dancers, the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans, animals being
processed in a factory farm, Petra, eerily humanoid robots, bizarre
coffins, gleaners at a garbage dump, and thousands upon thousands of
pilgrims at Mecca.

The title means something like “the ever turning wheel of life.”  So
the theme of birth, life, death, and rebirth repeats.  As in its
predecessors, you experience the individual scenes in SAMSARA
essentially on an emotional level.  But their juxtaposition brings to
mind certain thoughts.  We see a patient about to undergo plastic
surgery nearly alongside meticulously sculpted latex human faces.  We
witness the goings-on in a factory slaughterhouse, and afterward,
overweight diners gorging on their cheap calories.  Tribes, guns,
prisoners, and death, are shown, all on an epic scale.  Nature and
cities give us their best and worst.

This may strike some viewers as “preachy,” but that’s not how I saw
it.  For example, religion is a constantly recurring motif.  I didn’t
take the film as pushing religion, but more as a document of the human
experience.  And our way of life, and even our bodies, have been
transformed by changes in our food production.  Merely broaching some
topics like these, even though they are not explicitly commented on,
is seen as an unwelcome political act by some viewers.  But any film
that confronts the eternal is likely to stir unsettling thoughts.
The overarching theme of changes in our lives due to technology,
whether it is food production, airplanes, cars, or guns, have been a
part of every film in this lineage.  And with good reason -- films
like SAMSARA can help us to reflect on massive shifts in life on our
planet in ways few others can.

As you can imagine, creating a film so grand in scope was no easy
task.  It was shot in more than 20 countries over 4 and a half years.
The filmmakers had to get clearances to shoot in all manner of
sometimes-forbidden locations, and in some cases wait for just the
right season or lunar phase.  It was shot on 70mm, but digitally
scanned to 8k resolution.  In Toronto it was projected at 4k, a first
for the Toronto Film Festival.  If it is at all possible to see this
film on a big screen in a state-of-the art theater, by all means go
out of your way to do so.  Even if you have to travel somewhere to see
it that way, it is a hell of a lot easier than traveling the globe.

SAMSARA is easily one of the highlights of my moviegoing experiences
last year.  It may not have quite the same impact on audiences as some
of its predecessors, but that’s only because we’ve seen some of this
before.  In that sense it is a true sequel -- you get what you liked
from BARAKA, but bigger and better.  As far as I’m concerned, I’d love
to see an epic, trippy planet-orgy like SAMSARA every year.  The world
is a big place, and Ron Fricke and his team have only scratched the


-Andy Howell  aka Copernicus

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