SAMSARA is a Sanskrit word that means “the ever turning wheel of life” and is the point of departure for the filmmakers as they search for the elusive current of interconnection that runs through our lives. Filmed over a period of almost five years and in twenty-five countries, SAMSARA transports us to sacred grounds, disaster zones, industrial sites, and natural wonders. By dispensing with dialogue and descriptive text, SAMSARA subverts our expectations of a traditional documentary, instead encouraging our own inner interpretations inspired by images and music that infuses the ancient with the modern.
Samsara could be seen as a sort of sequel to Baraka, and yet it is markedly different. In a way Samsara feels more political than Baraka, was that intentional?
I would hate to summarise it in a word like political. The theme of Baraka was humanity’s relationship with the eternal, with Samsara is it more about the world in the time we did our filming. It’s a little bit more about now, it’s a little bit more contemporary. I could give you an example, we went to a lot of locations that were new, but we also went to some locations that we had visited in Baraka such as Cairo where we filmed antiquities for both films. When we did it in Baraka, we shot the antiquities and there was no modern city there, we did the pyramids and several other ancient ruins, whereas when we shot the pyramids in Samsara we showed them as background to the apartment buildings with the satellite dishes, showing a city that was evolving. Ironically we filmed that just a few months prior to the Arab spring… It’s an approach that illustrates the difference between the two films.
When I referred to Samsara as being a political film, I wasn’t trying to reduce it to a film with a message, but here you have introduced themes that were not present in Baraka, such as war, the food industry, sex…
Let me try to comment on that in a way that explains our approach. We are always trying to be careful not to go too deeply into a political message because it detracts form the kind of experience that this film is intended to be. What we are really hoping to achieve with this filmmaking is an inner kind of journey for the audience that doesn’t cross over certain boundaries where the viewer would say, “Gee I agree or I disagree with the filmmaker’s point of view on that particular topic.” Whether it is factory farming or war, conflict or sexuality, those are topics that we certainly touch on by subject matter, and by the way the film is edited, but we are trying to steer it back so that it doesn’t fall into a category that could be construed to be a message, because that is not what we are trying to do with this filmmaking. We are trying to allow the viewers space to bring their own feelings to the experience, rather than hearing an opinion. We are trying to walk that fine line and not cross over, its’ a fine balance and hopefully we hit that balance as well as we can, trying to find a middle road that is not a political massage for the viewer because there is just so much about that already – nothing wrong with it, it’s just not what we are doing with this kind of filmmaking.
Did you know from the start that you were going to have guns and robots in Samsara?
I think so, that was one of the subject matter criteria. In the case of the robots, it’s about a balance between the animate and the inanimate objects, even though some of the robots looked more real than the humans.
Talking about the robots, you cut from them to a sequence with the French performance artist Olivier De Sagazan. At what stage did his involvement come about?
Just stepping back, the written component we started with was pretty minimal. The themes were… Samsara is a Sanskrit word that means Birth, Death and Rebirth, or to use another word Impermanence, and that is how we constructed the research for locations.
Film is a visual medium and we were looking for dynamic visual imagery that reflected the themes of the film. The main structural component that we had at the beginning was the creation and destruction of the sand painting that bookends the film. Within that framework there were many subjects we found after the film was conceived and De Sagazan was one of them. The internet was a resource that we did have for Samsara but not for Baraka. We actually found Olivier De Sagazan’s performance on YouTube, along with several other performances, like the Filipino prison dance, for instance, or the Thousand Hands Goddess performance which we also found on YouTube.
I was going to ask you, how did you secure access to the prison in the Philippines?
We thought that it looked really interesting, it met the criteria of what we were looking for and we contacted the warden of the prison on Cebu Island in the Philippines, a guy named Byron Garcia who is the guy who masterminded this whole rehabilitation dance program that they have at that prison. It took a little while, communication was a little difficult, but we were able to get him to agree to let us come over and film that, you know, and we had to pay a fee. We also had a local production company, as we did with every country were we filmed in, securing us access and filming permits and so forth. All the locations we approached that way in advance. We were not going to bring our film crew over with 70mm film cameras without a pretty good list of targets that were firm and that we had access to. And then sometimes we would find things that weren’t planned.
As you mentioned YouTube, nowadays people are a lot more media savvy, was that a hindrance or did it help in the making of the film?
Good question. It’s much harder than it’s ever been to access locations. When I compare it to Baraka 20 years earlier, this was a much more difficult process. As you say, people are more media savvy and more concerned about how they appear in a film. We did a lot more explaining this time around. One of the benefits we had was that Baraka has become a phenomena around the world over the years, and people know us. It made it a lot more easier in general as that is not a film that people objected to, but some locations are much harder now, like to food processing sequences, which we were unable to obtain in Western Europe or the USA. We were only able to find that in China.
How do you get access to the guns factory?
That was only one factory, and that was another location that was hard to access but we were able to do that in the Philippines.
Samsara is not an observational documentary, and some scenes feel choreographed or at least one is aware that there was a complicated set up…
We did this in Baraka too. We would see a street scene, we would hang out and come back the next day. It takes a long time to set up 70mm cameras and the way Ron likes to shoot is very formal. We were not just throwing the camera down and rolling it. We are very methodical and it takes a long time. One of the by-products of that, is that you become a spectacle, but after a couple of hours people realize that there doesn’t seem like anything is going to happen so they tend to lose interest. In certain cases, like with the street scenes, we give directions like, “do what you are doing, but don’t look at the camera”, but that’s about it. In the case of the monks doing the sand painting, we contracted that with them over the course of a three-day period. They were working with us to accomplish the shots, as we moved the camera in certain places, but they are doing what they do, only that here they are doing it in conjunction with the filming process, so it was a little challenging for them, but it worked out fine.
The other thing I found interesting is the way you have close ups of people staring at the camera and in a “who is looking at who?” kind of way. Was that a way to try and establish a sort of dialogue?
One of the themes is interconnection and how everything is interconnected, so we tried to get that interconnection between the portrait subjects and the audience. We also set up these portraits in the very beginning of the film. In the prologue of Samsara, there’s a scene with the Bali dancers, with the girls staring in the camera and the final image before the main title is that of Tut’s mask staring back from eternity – I guess you could say. That is setting up those frontal portraits that you see in the rest of the film. It’s trying to see the essence of the subjects; it’s like stills photography. Ron’s approach to portraiture is to reveal the essence of the subject matter. The direction we give is very simple and basic, “Just look at the camera and don’t blink”, that’s just what it is, it’s all the direction they get. We try to find subjects who are more open to the camera and who let you see inside their souls a little bit. It is hard with portraits as you can’t just go out and say, “I am going to get a great portrait today”, it doesn’t happen that way. Sometimes it happens when you don’t expect it.
Talking about photography, I am reminded of Edward Burtynsky’s work and specifically about Manufactured Landscapes. As you were saying, in Baraka you didn’t include the satellite dishes, but here you are happy to show how landscapes are manufactured. Is there an intentional similarity?
I actually know Burtinsky, he lives in Toronto and he came to the opening of Samsara at the film festival. He also worked with Noah Weinzweig, who was, you could say, his access person in China and, as we also worked with Noah we ended up in some of the same locations that Burtinsky shot stills in. The two approaches are similar in the way we try and seek highly visual images. The factory that was in Manufactured Landscapes that makes irons and small appliances is one of the biggest in the world and that is where we also filmed our interior. It was suitable for what we were trying to do in a film like this that is visual.
Did you ever find any of the locations that you had originally intended for the film not to be visual enough in reality?
I don’t think so, not really. You make the best of what you have and make it work. Hopefully you get good luck with the bad luck. Sometime of the locations turned out memorable like the amazing balloon ride we took over the temples in Burma which was magical. We got lucky there as we had perfect weather and the balloon just flew in the right direction. They can’t control the balloons, only how high and low they can go, but not the wind direction obviously. So it’s about immersing yourself in these locations and being prepared for the good luck, that is the process. Sometimes it works well and sometimes it doesn’t.
What is complicated gaining access in Burma and what were the filming constraints you experienced?
It was complicated getting in the door, now Burma has become a more friendly political state, at least with our country. When we were there, they had a retired general from the army accompanying us everywhere. They didn’t want us to point the camera at poverty or anything that might be construed to be negative for the government but they were fine with us taking pictures of the temples. You are limited to what you can film to a certain extent in a country like that.
As you were saying earlier, there are some recurring locations in both films. What were your intentions behind that?
We wanted to tie the films together, like with the Tokyo subway. I don’t know what images you are referring to in particular, but that is one example. We went back, but we kept it short and sweet, it’s just a few seconds really. To some extent, time lapse is the vocabulary of non-verbal filmmaking, something we utilized in all these films. We tried to take that further and be a little bit more concise. It’s edited really efficiently.
How do you feel you have progressed in the notion of non’verbal cinema?
We were conscious that Baraka was well regarded, it started up slowly and it took 20 years to be viewed by so many people around the world, but we have a strong fan base, and I get letters from people who have seen Baraka 50 times or something. So we didn’t want to disappoint these people and did the best we could. There’s a high bar in what constitutes what is visually interesting nowadays and from what’s available on the Internet. It is higher than what it was 20 years ago, so you have to dig deeper when doing your research. Maybe that is the way it should be, things should improve over time, and that is what we try to do. There are more edits in Samsara than in Baraka. You can’t sit on imagery as long as you could back then. When I’m editing with Ron I feel like we got to move it on. We cannot sit on these images too long, we have to move to the next subject, because we are all impacted by the density and the flow of imagery that we all see on a daily basis and this does impact your sensibility when you create a film like this.
With time-lapse, there are a lot of short film on vimeo done with a 5d or similar. Is there is a risk for these images to become clichéd, are we soon going to tire of them?
Well, you know, I have seen a lot of that. I think what is difficult, when you are making a film which is 100 minutes in length, – Baraka was a little bit less, it was 96 or something – is that it can’t just be about that.
There is lot of great imagery around, many great shots that people get, with starry fields at night with beautiful trees, but it can’t just be about the time-lapse. When you get these great shots you still have to put them together in a way that has a beginning a middle and an end, there has to be an arc. And when the film ends you feel like you’ve been on a journey that is concluding when the film ends. That is really the hard part of this kind of filmmaking, to work beyond these great shots.
About the music, Samsara was scored by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisi. At what point did you get them involved?
We’d been talking to them before the film was completed but we didn’t start the music in earnest right until the film was edited. We edited in silence, which was an interesting experiment in itself, but you know, we brought the composers in after the film was completely edited. The music makes everything work better, so without the music we had to make the edit very efficient; we got the structure in a way that works visually. That was our approach, to make it work visually and structurally. We kept refining the edit, tightening it up, you could say, and then brought the music in.
And yet the soundtrack is not pervasive, in that you allow for natural sounds to filter though…
There are moments where we bring in natural sounds, for example with the waterfall and that is really a kind of a dance you are doing in the overall arc and structure of the film. When you have the magical combination of the right music and the right image, that is hopefully taking you to a deeper stage of feeling, but sometimes you want to come out like from that like with the prison sequence or the waterfall, ‘cause you can’t be in that inner place all the time. We try to go in and out of that inner place and come back to the reality of the synchronized sound to the image. It is really challenging to make a film work for 100 minutes with no dialogue, and no traditional story. We didn’t want the audience to feel bored, that is the challenge of this kind of filmmaking.
One of the sequences you highlighted in the promo material was the Jerusalem one with Lisa Gerrard doing the vocals. How did your collaboration with her come about?
There was a piece of music from Dead Can Dance that was used in Baraka over the sequence of the garbage dump in Culcutta, the track The Host Of Seraphim, so I got to know her a little bit then. She actually did a bit of original music in that film, just a couple of minutes, and that was Lisa’s first experience with film score. Then they asked me to do a film with Dead Can Dance about a concert, a little project I did many years ago to coincide with an album they brought out Toward the Within and that is how I got to know her and Brandon Perry better and we remained in touch. She has obviously had a terrific career in film score since then with major film productions and we got her back on Samsara. We had also already worked with Michael Sterns, both on Chronos and Baraka as well. It was about reconnecting with people we were comfortable working with and that understood how to make music for a non-verbal film. Music that works well with this kind of imagery is spacious in nature and that is the kind of feeling we were striving for that would allow for the viewer to sink into the experience.
Has the music revealed anything unexpected to you about the film?
Sure, it just takes it to a whole different level and makes you feel much more deeply…
I was blown away by what a terrific job the composers did. There are so many unique and amazing pieces of music like the singing bowls that Michael used over the Hurricane Katrina footage, or Lisa’s vocals over the Jerusalem section, that is all done with vocals. You don’t realize it until you hear it a couple of times, you think it is electronic, but it’s thirty tracks of voice. There’s just a lot of really high quality music in there.
What is the next step?
This film was almost five years in the making, four and half, while Baraka took three years. I feel like I need some space now whereas Ron would like to do one straight away. Also it is hard, as you said before, with access. We also shot film and now with digital we have to think hard about it.
Could you envisage doing something with digital cameras?
Possibly. Digital has started to rival the quality of film, which wasn’t the case when we started this project. There’s such a heavy price to pay in shooting with film like we couldn’t carry the film with us to avoid it being x-rayed, so we had to send it in and send it out via Fed-ex or DHL. Still, it was a privilege to shoot with 70mm film, the fidelity is just unmatched by digital so far.
Samsara and Baraka are available on DVD and Blue Ray from January 14th.