One of the most difficult things about Samsara is trying to describe it. "Well," you could say, "It's a collection of really beautiful and striking images edited together with music. --- And some of those images are time-lapse, say, showing a sunrise and sunset in the desert, but sped up. And some of the images are very long takes, and…"
Yeah. I'm asleep already. Luckily, I have a perceptive friend (also a film writer) who sent me a note with these words: "In this day and age I sometimes think, 'I probably should try meditating more. But there are so many films to catch up on.' With Samsara, I can do both!"
He means that as a compliment. And apparently Samsara's director (and former Santa Fe resident), Ron Fricke, agrees on the meditation angle. "I call [Samsara] a guided meditation based on the themes of birth, death and rebirth," he says in a recent interview, adding, "That was the whole emphasis of the film, the flow, so there would be a sense of interconnection."
Even without knowing Fricke and producer Mark Magidson's intentions, the birth, death and rebirth idea is clear. The marriage of Fricke's images—he's also the cinematographer—and music by composer and Santa Fe resident Michael Stearns (there's also original music by Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci) is an absorbing experience, and the themes feel present throughout, whether we're looking at heavy labor in sulfur mines; technology used for food manufacturing; the sexuality of various types of sex dolls; or a landfill through which people scavenge.
Plus, the music works not just as score, but stands on its own. Stearns' pieces range from the understated "Thousand Hands" to the thunderous "Ladakh."
But perhaps the way one feels most deeply connected with the film is through its portraits, in which the subjects of those portraits stare directly at the audience. "That concept was styled after King Tut's death mask in the beginning [of the film]," says Fricke. "He being a metaphor for rebirth, that soul looking back at you that could connect all of us no matter who you are. So the direction to the [portrait subjects] was simply stare at the camera and don't blink."
The most captivating of the staring portraits is a geisha filmed in Tokyo, heavily made up, who, during her portrait, sheds a single tear.
"We lit that portrait," says Fricke, adding that they didn't add light to the others. "As the camera was being pushed in, I'm looking through the viewfinder and I see this big tear coming out of her eye and I just couldn't believe it. And she didn't blink! It was just because of the make-up and lighting that caused her to tear up."
"That was a happy accident," says Magidson.
"And she kept that stare," says Fricke. "She kept that moment."
The film is full of moments. When I ask Magidson whether there are any moments he thinks they missed out on, he says, "Well, we did get shut out of North Korea. It was the one country we were hoping to go to that we couldn't get in. Speaking of New Mexico, I got a really nice letter of introduction by [former governor] Bill Richardson to the North Korean mission at the U.N. We thought we were in and it just didn't end up happening. That was the one that got away."
Maybe North Korea will make the list for the next film. As Fricke says, "It's a big, beautiful world out there full of wonderful things. There's definitely another non-verbal epic to be made."