The Mindful Bard – Samsara

Books, Music, and Film to Wake Up Your Muse and Help You Change the World

Film: Samsara

Director: Ron Fricke

Genre: Documentary

?The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone here and there who thinks and feels with us, and though distant, is close to us in spirit?this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.?


The Silent Verbosity of Visual Splendour

Sometimes words just make things too fast, easy, and cheap. If the Big Mac has taught us anything, It’s that fast, easy, and cheap can not only taste bad, it can rob you?and the planet?of health and well-being.

Samsara, like the Fricke and Magidson films that preceded it (Chronos and Baraka), is anything but fast, cheap, or easy. In a time when many filmmakers (like Wim Wenders) have jumped on the digital cinematography wave and others (like Christopher Nolan) are guarding the bastion of film cinematography with swords raised, Fricke and Magidson have come up with an interesting compromise.

It’s a method as effective as it is arduous; you may have used it yourself if you’ve ever sought to digitize those black-and-white photos of you, Pa, and Sis leaning against the wood-panelled station wagon. The filmmakers shot the scenes on 70 mm film, then scanned each frame at the highest resolution possible for 4K digital projection.

Such a gargantuan art project ranks with the ceiling of the Sistine for long-term commitment to excellence at any cost. Part of you exclaims, Wow, these must be truly great artists! While another part asks, But does technical excellence and innovation make for good art?

Well, not always, but in this case the answer is a ringing yes.

Another engaging aspect of this work is the way in which the filmmakers have chosen and framed some of the most mesmerizing spectacles?both beautiful and ghastly?on this planet, and then pieced them together to form a story. It’s not a formal story with a plot and a protagonist, but a story nonetheless because of the sense of conflict it generates.

The story comes more in a series of waves than in one grand crescendo and decrescendo (is it possible to call a film modal?) and as such is better comparable to Ravi Shankar’s ragas than to Beethoven’s symphonies.

Fricke and Magidson have used the language of juxtaposition to make profound statements about life in this world while leaving interpretation open. Everyone, regardless of ideology or affiliation, will find a powerful message here, but the words each will use to explain this message will be widely disparate.

Then there’s the purely aesthetic element. As Francis Bacon said, ?There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.? Again and again, scenes are chosen and presented for this element of strangeness that bores into your visual cortex. Be careful?it could change not only the way you think and feel but also how you subsequently experience visual stimuli.

The little dancers who open the film are a stunning example. Their stiff costumes, contrived doll-like movements, and comical facial expressions under heavy makeup seem to introduce the film with a statement about the beauty of life as well as carrying a subtle warning about the ubiquitous presence of the trickster, who mocks the formalities he enacts.

After watching a series of scenes about Western overconsumption (meat animals whose entire lives are ?processed? in cold factories, food being sold in supermarkets, and patients preparing for surgery for obesity) and about the sexualization of women and girls (cosmetic surgery, exotic dancers, and sex dolls), we see a geisha walking down a hall, then a close-up of her frozen face, a tear skipping gently down her white, pancaked cheek. There exists a real connection between greed and the objectification of women, and it really can’t be stated better than this.

This is soon followed by a scene from a prison in the Philippines, where the women prisoners appreciatively regard a brilliant display of male physicality. Several hundred male prisoners, all dressed in bright peach uniforms, joyfully enact a buoyant dance, glorious, self-affirming, and fun. The women look serene and empowered by the display of strength, grace, and agility.

Baraka received a bit of flack for being too Zen-escapist. If there really was a skew in that direction, Samsara makes up for it by including the three Abrahamic religions, showing the beautiful contrapuntal movements of orthodox Jews at the Wailing Wall, then the spellbinding aerial view of thousands of pilgrims circling the Kaaba in Mecca and then kneeling and prostrating all at once. We see interiors of huge cathedrals with beams of light emitting from their cupolas. Tribute is also paid to the Buddhist traditions, which the filmmakers clearly favour (if not espouse). But there is no proselytizing happening here, in this lovely screen space where all is one.

When I first started watching this film, it was as a kind of background to whatever work I happened to be doing at the time. The music is wonderful and perfectly apt to the film, but I was using the visuals as background too, occasionally looking up to find images that filled me with awe and serenity. I found myself watching it again and again, not only for the peace it brought me but also for the creative stimulation.

Does the surpassing beauty of the world cancel out its hideous ugliness? Who knows? Who cares? Life is spectacular?isn’t that enough?

Samsara is one of the few films that manifest all 13 of the Mindful Bard’s criteriaabout for films well worth seeing: 1) it is authentic, original, and delightful; 2) it poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence; 3) it stimulates my mind; 4) it harmoniously unites art with social action, saving me from both seclusion in an ivory tower and slavery to someone else’s political agenda; 5) it provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavour; 6) it is about attainment of the true self; 7) it inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation; 8) it displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering; 9) it gives me artistic tools; 10) it makes me want to be a better artist; 11) it gives me tools of kindness, enabling me to respond with compassion and efficacy to the suffering around me; 12) it renews my enthusiasm for positive social action; and 13) it makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomenon, making living a unique opportunity.

Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.