The SAMSARA files
Being able to work on a film as remarkable and quietly revolutionary as Samsara, which opened in Honolulu last week, turned into a privilege lasting more than six years–five in production and over a year in editing (including seven re-edits).
The call came nearly seven years ago, from Samsara director/cinematographer/co-editor.
“Bob,” came Ron Fricke’s familiar staccato. “Wanna work on another film?”
I had been one of three writers on Fricke’s previous film, Baraka. Twenty-five years earlier he had been a film student of mine. This time I was asked to be production consultant, covering a multitude of tasks.
These days I work only on indie movies, made outside the heavily compromised studio system, self-financed, and then sent to film festivals to entice potential buyers. The key difference is that in the indie world, the main organization–the festival–has no control over content, very unlike the studio system.
Baraka had been a modest success, playing in more than 30 countries. It was even called a masterpiece by the film trade-magazine Variety. By the l980s, Fricke was a seasoned veteran of his kind of non-verbal doc, having shot Koyaanisqatsi, Chronos and Baraka.
The idea started with a startlingly clear dream. Fricke says he sat bolt upright, after a dream about a Tibetan sand painting. “We’re going to start the film with a sand painting being created,” Fricke later told me. Fricke often refers to his works as “guided meditations,” and this concept is realized fully in Samsara, which I saw on a giant screen in Digital 4-K format for the first time last week.
The logistics of mounting such a film are not for the faint-hearted. Samsara was shot over a period of five years in l02 locations in 25 countries in 65mm film, using both conventional and specially invented equipment. The film required several around-the-world trips and returns to home base (Los Angeles) for study and analysis, all the while building footage relating to the “birth-death-rebirth” in a looser format than that of Baraka.
As Fricke and producer/co-editor Mark Magidson worked, I was sent drafts for critical commentary. The rest of my work was through in-person meetings, emails and hundreds of phone calls. In the last two years, original music by Michael Stearns (Baraka) and Lisa Gerrard (Whale Rider), was composed and re-composed.
As consultant I had freedom to contribute without having to join more unions, terrific for me, as I was able to participate in the film’s entire five-year journey.
By the time Samsara opened in the U.S. a few months ago, it had already played in more than 11 foreign countries, mostly to ecstatic reviews. Now in the U.S., its reviews have also been (mostly) ecstatic, with Roger Ebert calling it “magnificent” and the New Yorker giving it a rave capsule review.
The format plays a large role in such an ambitious project. Digital projection was chosen for the release, in the highest image resolution possible. Many reviewers have said it has the strongest visual clarity they’d ever seen.
Years ago, Fricke and I discussed working on films that were purely cinematic: No dialogue, no voice-overs–only visuals and music. Now there are plans for more such films, encouraged by Samsara’s being a real hit, playing not only in major markets and art houses but “ordinary” theatres as well. See it if you can. No false modesty here: It’s a remarkable movie.