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'Samsara': A Meditation On What It Means To Be Human (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

Posted: 09/17/2012 12:58 pm

Samsara is the latest film from Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson, makers of the 1992 cult classic Baraka.

Filmed over a period of five years in 25 countries on five continents and shot on 70mm film, Samsara is unlike any other film you will see this year. Described by the pair as more guided meditation than documentary, Samsara grabs you by your heart and soul as you are led on a fantastical journey through the world we inhabit. At times you feel like the filmmakers' emotional marionette as you are taken back and forth between the mystical and the mechanical, the familiar and the foreign. Samsara forces you to question the nature of our relationship to the rest of our species, our environment and, ultimately, the "flow" of life that transcends it all.

Watch the trailer below, and then read our exclusive interview with Fricke and Magidson:

For viewers that haven't yet heard of Samsara, can you sum up what the film is about?
Ron: We envisioned and created Samsara as a non-verbal, guided meditation on the themes of birth, death and rebirth. It's a follow up film on Baraka and we're dealing with the same overall theme of interconnection that Baraka dealt with and humanity's relationship to the eternal. Samsara takes these concepts to a different level. The Buddhist Sanskrit word Samsara is really about the wheel of life or impermanence: the flow of life and how we're all connected to that flow.

Both Samsara and Baraka have a similar underlying narrative. Did you have this narrative in mind before you went out filming or did your subjects and the places you visited determine your story?
Mark: It's a combination. The ultimate film has the aim of the original concept but the execution is based on the reality of what you end up filming and bring back. A lot of the places we went to had been researched; we're not dragging everyone over without a good idea of what we are going for. But in the process you get surprises and interesting things happen. And we had that structural element of the sand mandala, the creation infrastructure. The sand mandala was something that was conceived in advance and we were able to get that in Ladakh, India. Sounds good when you're thinking about it, but you really have to accomplish it visually too, it worked out really well.
Ron: It gave us the opening and the closing, the bookends to the film. It really visually lets you see the concept: creating this beautiful mandala and then at the end it gets wiped away. We were in Ladakh at the monastery and it took the monks about two days to create it for us.

You got some phenomenal access in the film, from baptisms and funerals to prisons and slaughterhouses. How did you do this?
Mark: We are working through our local production companies in every country and they were definitely doing a lot of the work in advance of us showing up. Baraka was helpful; a lot of people knew Baraka around the world which was somewhat of a surprise to us I guess. The food factories were tough locations. In China they were actually proud of the modern automation and how clean they were. It's a different situation than it would have been here. We tried but we couldn't get it in the US.

The geisha portrait is perhaps one of the most powerful portraits in the film. What did you say or do to get her to shed a tear in this scene?
Ron: We had looked at other portraits that day and just about everything we shot we didn't like. But in this case, she had the same direction as all the other portraits subjects had, to just stare into the camera and not blink; blinking portraits wouldn't work. And so, as I was looking through the viewfinder I could see this big tear flowing up in her eye and I just couldn't believe it. She didn't blink. So it worked and it was because of the make-up and the lighting and the series of takes we were doing. And it happily happened at the right moment with the camera where it needed to be when that tear came out. Being the pearl that she is, she didn't blink or move; something we didn't expect.

The film moves the viewer between elating and disturbing scenes. What were the most emotionally challenging places for you to film?
Ron: There was a location that had us down on the ground, blind and gagging. We couldn't breathe. It was when we were filming the sulfur miners at the volcano. That vapor you saw in the background was sulfuric acid and when the wind changed it just knocked us out. But you know, I think it's all emotionally challenging. You see a lot of conditions out there you wouldn't want to be working in or involved in. But it's all part of what we were showing: how we're all interconnected, no matter who you are, where we are or what we're doing.
Mark: There's just a lot of poverty and you feel very lucky to be living where you are. People in the chicken factory: that's just really a tough place to work. It was cold, it was damp, it was repetitive, messy, all those things that you feel when you are out there. That's tough to be around and see and you feel a lot of compassion for everyone there.

Both films are very spiritual portrayals of the world. Would you consider yourself formally religious? If not, what are your guiding life principles?
Ron: My frame of reference is that we are all spiritual beings, always have been, always will be whether you know it or not.
Mark: You don't go out and spend five years making a 90-minute movie like this unless you just really feel a desire to show that interconnectedness that we all share. I don't know if you could call it an organized religious stance, it's just an individual thing.

Take a look at images from the film in the slideshow below:

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