Directed by Ron Fricke. PG. 102 min. Opens Oct. 5 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
It’s a good idea to see works like Samsara every now and then, if only to be reminded that film is a visual medium. That may sound obvious, but today, most mainstream movies are cut so fast that you never get time to appreciate the images. Samsara not only lets you study the subjects in front of the camera, but because not a single word is spoken in the entire 102-minute running time, it also allows you to really think about what you’re seeing.
This isn’t to say that this globe-spanning documentary—shot in gorgeous high-res 70mm by cinematographer-director Ron Fricke—is slow-moving, or that it isn’t skilfully (if rather pointedly) edited by Fricke and producer Mark Magidson to shape our thoughts. In fact, the dizzying centrepiece is a series of high-speed time-lapse sequences that reduce all kinds of human activity, from factory work to religious worship, to a frenzied symphony that is by turns comical, graceful, and grotesque. And the filmmakers’ favourite trick is the provocative juxtaposition: Eerie shots of ancient ruins are paired with those surveying the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina, and disturbing footage of animals being processed for food in China is followed by the sight of obese diners scarfing down meals at an L.A. Burger King.
The awesome visuals, the time-lapse techniques, and the implied commentary all have their roots in Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 head-trip classic Koyaanisqatsi—for which Fricke was director of photography. Like that film and Fricke and Magidson’s last venture, 1992’s religion-themed Baraka, there’s also a mystical streak in Samsara. The title is Sanskrit for “the wheel of life” and it’s the recurring theme here, framed by scenes of Buddhist monks carefully creating and then destroying a delicate sand mandala to symbolize the impermanence of that wheel. Yet if this world is fleeting, Samsara makes us open our eyes to its passing wonders.