Samsara: compassion for humanity is the intent of a meditation on cycles of life, death and rebirth

Ron Fricke, “Samsara” (2011)

Fourth in a series of wordless visual documentaries by Ron Fricke (the previous films being “Chronos”, “Sacred Sites” and “Baraka”), “Samsara” is intended as a meditation on the human experience throughout the world. The word itself refers to the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth, with the inherent implications of impermanence, faith and hope that arise. The best and worst of human life are offered in the film yet Fricke, producer Mark Magidson and their team and fellow collaborators offer no message or political views to accompany the images; whatever messages people take away from viewing this film depend entirely on what they are able to bring to it. For this reason, many viewers will find the film frustrating to sit through: they will be expecting the film to tell them what to think and to believe from the images presented and the way they are sequenced, and they are very likely to be disappointed that the film tells them nothing.

In fact, the film does have something to say: it’s a kind of travelogue through the activities of humans in all their beauty, goodness, desolation, drudgery and degradation. There is a definite narrative: it begins with Buddhist temple dancers in Indochina and Thailand welcoming viewers to the film, and switches to Tibetan Buddhist monks painstakingly creating a mandala with tiny coloured beads on a stone floor while novice child monks eagerly watch. The camera zooms into the mandala and takes us on an odyssey that lasts for almost the entire length of the documentary. Early images can be shocking: there are scenes of flood devastation and wreckage in a retail centre, a school, a canteen and other buildings, and as the camera draws back, we realise we are looking at places ruined by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. A mythical Great Flood that might have heralded the beginnings of human civilisation is suggested here. From then on, the film treats us to scenes of children being baptised, to a businessman smearing clay and paint compulsively and repetitively over his face, to shots of a cathedral with emphasis on its height, vastness, the beautiful stained-glass windows and the stone columns that form into ribbed vaults which look oddly like industrial pipes.

Then the documentary moves into a series of scenes that create a cycle: the birth, life and death of machines. Yellow-suited employees pass through toll gates into a factory complex, assemble into work teams and file into their allotted places on rows and rows of assembly lines. There, they assemble various parts together and the end product (electric irons) comes into being. The film then jumps to check-out lines at a discount store in the US where shoppers also pass through different toll gates to pay for purchases bought in bulk. A woman loads bundles of toilet roll paper into her trolley. Later, we see cars being driven onto a ship for export. The film then jumps to scenes of cars and other vehicles being crushed at a wrecker’s plant. Soon we see mounds of discarded electronic gadgets being picked over by people for recycling. This part of the film says something about how machines rule our lives and have assumed an organic nature of a sort.

A second cycle then starts: food production. A battery farm packed with chickens appears: the frightened chooks are swept up into a machine that vomits them onto a conveyor belt to be processed into fried nuggets for fast-food enterprises. A herd of dairy cows chomp down on hay while they are being mechanically milked on a huge merry-go-round in a cavernous factory building. Tiny piglets fight for mum’s teats while the sow rests in a cramped stall along with all the other sows doing likewise with their babies in their cramped stalls. We later see abattoir workers cutting up pig carcasses and preparing the various cuts that will be sold in butcheries. What follows next can be horrifying: a hugely obese patient presents before a doctor, people at a fast-food restaurant gobble down fatty burgers and chips, and people prepare to undergo plastic surgery. This part of the film emphasises the extent to which humans have colonised and mechanised nature and food production to the extent that it is starting to affect our physical and mental well-being.

The film segues into a series of scenes and images that say something about how humans are continually changing themselves and changing nature for benefits that are short-term and sensual but offer nothing really concrete. There are disturbing images of sex dolls and of beautiful Thai girls in bikinis dancing for tourists; a close-up shot of the girls’ bodies reveals they are ladyboys (transsexuals). A geisha looks at the camera and a tear falls from her eye.

As the documentary progresses, the messages become darker. A man in Nigeria is buried in a coffin designed to resemble a revolver; I guess if you live by the gun and die by the gun, you can also be buried in a gun. This scene introduces viewers to death and scenes that suggest death is a very profitable industry indeed. Hatred and war are celebrated with military parades. Rifles and bullets are made and sold in any way catering to people’s tastes; even pink rifles for women are available. Tribal peoples in Africa acquire sophisticated weaponry and pose with them for the camera. Eventually the film segues into images of religious faith and hope: the Hajj pilgrimage season in Mecca provides plenty of stunning images. The film concludes with the aforementioned Tibetans rubbing out their mandala, mixing the coloured dust and collecting it into a bowl; the temple dancers performing a final dance and the lead dancer shutting her eyes; and a final shot of desert sand dunes that suggests that human life will eventually pass away with time and only nature is timeless yet ever-changing.

The documentary makes much use of high-speed photography and slow-motion filming to draw analogies and highlight contrasts among different scenes and images. There’s considerable humour in the film: there are close-up images of people with immobile faces, the only activity present being the movement of their eyes as they follow (unseen to viewers) computer images; two Muslim women attired in niqab pretend not to notice a poster showing young male bodybuilders decked out in tiny briefs behind them; Filipino prisoners at a rehabilitation centre perform a mass aerobic work-out dance routine; people ride in ski-lifts and ski down snowy slopes in an indoor skiing centre located in the United Arab Emirates. There are also heartbreaking scenes: a youthful Israeli soldier checks the identification papers of a middle-aged Palestinian man in his car, the driver’s image seen in his left-hand mirror, his face stoic and dignified and trying not to appear humiliated because the young pup beside him has usurped the order in which the younger defer to the older; a US Army war vet with a heavily scarred and burnt face gazes calmly at the camera; an Indonesian sulphur miner, his upper back and shoulders calloused from constant lifting and carrying of loads, carries huge chunks of the yellow stuff out of the smoking ground.

There are many close-up shots of people looking directly into the camera, their faces deliberately stony and expressionless, as if daring the viewers to look them in the eye or accusing the viewers of having stereotyped views about them. The American family posing with rifles, the teenage girl clutching her pink rifle, challenges viewers to call them a bunch of gun-nut fruitcakes. The scarred war vet asks for no compassion or apology, just respect. A girl in a slum, gazing out over a pond, turns to the camera and stares at the viewer indifferently before turning back to the view to dream of a future life away from her sordid surroundings.

It is all a splendid kaleidoscope but I do have a few criticisms about the film: the music is annoyingly New Age banal and intrusive and in several scenes, the ambient soundscapes would have been enough; some image sequences move too fast for audiences to be able to absorb all that they see; and the length of the film (over 100 minutes) is such that much of it ends up forgotten after the end credits start to roll. The jump from one location to another can be very confusing and there are no sub-titles that indicate where images were filmed; viewers need to have a good knowledge of geography and culture to make sense of what’s going on and what messages are being told.

Ultimately the one thing that viewers need to know to make sense of “Samsara” will be one that most Western viewers are unfamiliar with, and that is some knowledge of the Buddhist concept of the impermanence of life and life as a continuous series of cycles. For many if not most Westerners, that is an idea that will be hard to accept. The intent might be to encourage compassion in viewers for humanity with the ultimate idea being that compassion will motivate them to help others, but given that even in Buddhists, the reaction can be more often indifference to the plight of humanity and thence moral hollowness, what hope for the rest of us?

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