Opening this weekend in limited release is the new film, Samsara. It is unlike anything that you may have ever seen before in theaters. Categorized as a “non-verbal documentary,” Samsara relies on powerful imagery and music to create moods and themes. Some refer to the art-form as “trance” or “meditative” cinema, and seen on the big screen – Samsara was shot on 70 mm film, the largest size available – it is a breath-taking experience.
I recently chatted with Ron Fricke, the director of Samsara, along with his producing partner Mark Magidson, to get some insight into their very unique film.
Tom Santilli, Detroit Movie Examiner: So my first question is a very basic one: What is your film, Samsara?
Ron Fricke, director: Well Samsara is a follow-up to Baraka (Fricke’s 1992 film), just a continuation of developing the themes of interconnection. Baraka dealt with humanities relationship to the eternal and Samsara is a non-verbal, guided meditation that deals with the themes of birth, death and re-birth.
So was that always the plan, to follow-up Baraka with another film?
Ron Fricke: Well, I knew there would be another film, it just took us a little bit longer than we had thought. But there was always another film planned.
You made the decision to shoot this film on 70 mm film. Explain to people who aren’t film scholars what that means and why you chose that format?
Ron Fricke: 70 mm is, I guess you could say, the widest screen negative that there is. It gives you this gorgeous wide screen. Since we don’t have main characters and we’re not dealing with a screenplay or dialogue, the image is the main character. So we set out to get the best resolution and fidelity so that you could feel the content and the nuances in the image. And there is just no better way to do that than with [70 mm film].
Speaking of the imagery, the film contains a number of beautiful shots and scenes, breath-taking really. Conceptually, how do you come up with these shots? Do you have an idea of how these shots will link together or does that happen later in editing?
Ron Fricke: Well, a little combination of both, but mostly it’s planned out. We have a scenario, all of our ideas and concepts. The overall meaning or purpose of Samsara is “impermanent.” So early on we had the idea to film this sand mandala in India and it would open and close the film. We would film it being created and then a few day later we would film it being destroyed. Those were the bookends of the film. That gave us the foundation. The other ideas in the film were researched, and where we found the best targets and locations, that’s where we directed all our attention. We’re not just out there running around shooting stuff. We have a pretty good idea before we arrive at a location that we are going to get a lot of good imagery at that location. But there are a lot of happy accidents.
What are some of the “happy accidents” that were not planned that made the film?
Mark Magidson, producer: I’d say a lot of the portraits [people], those are really hard to plan on. You can’t count on that special kind of experience, where you are really looking into the soul of the subject. A lot of the portraits that we have, you are looking to find, but you don’t always find. They are kind of rare moments.
Samsara was shot over four years in over 25 countries. What led you to choose certain locations over others?
Mark Magidson: Well, you don’t really want to drag a whole bunch of people to a really far off location without a really good reason to be there. Then there are budgetary issues. You want the locations to yeild the kind of imagery that will work in the film.
The film doesn’t just look beautiful, it also has a mesmorizing score. Can you talk about the music in Samsara?
Mark Magidson: We edited the film in silence. We didn’t work with any music from the beginning, which differs from what we did with Baraka. We really just let the imagery guide the edit. We found the film within the imagery. Then the composers came in and interpreted musically the arc of those sequences. In each of those sequences is like a little mini-story in and of itself. We kind of work together and it’s a very immersive process.
After watching some of the sequences that you cut put to music, did you find that they took on a whole different meaning?
Mark Magidson: I would say yes. It is kind of a starved process, when you are editing in silence. When we got the music, it just added these levels of emotional impact that you just can’t fathom ahead of time. So there was a lot of depth added to the film with the music.
I think it’s safe to say that non-verbal documentaries are not commonplace in the movie theater these days. What sort of audience are you hoping to reach with Samsara?
Mark Magidson: The best way to approach the film is to just sit back and let it wash over you and to not be too analytical about it. I think that it is something that anybody, hopefully, can have a good experience seeing. You want the audience to come away with a sense of connection, and to connection to phenomenons around the world.
You can get more information from Ron Fricke, Mark Magidson and their films at their website www.barakasamsara.com, and you can also look them up on Facebook and Twitter.
Check back tomorrow (Friday) for my full review of Samsara.
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