The film Samsara has no narrative or spoken parts; no main characters; no epic car chase; and no everlasting romance. Without the Hollywood prerequisites the 99-minute feature documentary relies heavily on visuals and an original score to carry it.
“We worked hard to bring back material that is visually interesting and profound,” says producer Mark Magidson. “Or, at the very least, things viewers have not seen already.”
The camera is the storyteller; swooping over cityscapes, temples, and garbage dumps to the narrow stares of exotic tribespeople and suburbanites posing with rifles.
Samsara—which goes into limited release on August 24—is the third nonverbal collaboration between director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson. Their first project, Chronos (1985), featured eight countries in a 35-minute film. For Samsara, the duo traveled to 25 countries on five continents over five years.
The ethos of Samsara is interconnection across cultures, time, and distance. The film is comprised of themed shots that show the chaos and sameness, cause and effect, of a developed planet in the 21st century. A slow motion shot of an ancient building ruined by a sandstorm cuts to a flooded abandoned house; images of food processing plants precede a time lapse of people scarfing down a meal at a restaurant. Some locales are recognizable, but Magidson asserts the film’s focus is not that of a tour guide.
“It would have been a different experience with titles of places,” according to Magidson. “It would open up an intellectual discussion on things. We want the film to be centered on feeling, not intellect.”
The hunt for new and appropriate visuals is a trying investment. An eight-second clip of a Native American ruin called Betatakin in Arizona required a four-hour hike with equipment in 100-degree heat. A couple of seconds of screen time of a Hyundai loading dock meant an entire day of shooting. Amidst all this preparation Magidson and Fricke still change plans due to inspiration while on location.
“We were in Ethiopia to film a certain tribe,” recalls Magidson. “We found a book in our hotel in Addis Ababa with these stunning pictures of the Mursi tribe. We got in contact with some people and ended up shooting the Mursi instead.”
Fricke describes the Samsara experience as “guided meditation.” The chosen images are meant to represent the flow of birth, death, and rebirth on a global scale (the word samsara in fact means “continuous flow” in Sanskrit). The camera acts as an observer of the phenomena, free of value judgments.
The score adds to the sensory adventure. “The music is meant to be very spacious and absorbent,” explains Magidson. “We didn’t micro-manage it. It’s meant to allow the viewer to bring something to what they’re seeing.”
Magidson’s breadth of travel is enough to make any globetrotter gush, and then call it quits. Even now he is driven to revisiting places like Japan and Indonesia, and finds time to fly out to Maui for a film festival.
“I need to be home for at least a year now,” says Magidson with a laugh. ‘Then I can go out again.”
Samsara opens in limited release on August 24. See all release dates.