Amazing journey: Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson capture the world's wonders in 'Samsara'

For over several decades, the filmmaking duo of Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson have teamed on non-verbal, cinematographically stunning documentaries that, like their 1985 Chronos and 1992 70mm Panavision feature-length Baraka, traveled across continents to explore spiritually inclined themes like interconnection and transcendence.

With Samsara, they return to the same genre, theme and m.o., but upgrade the cinematic voyage into territories even more widespread and exotic while still hewing to a spiritual mission of exploration and experience. Filmed over a period of five years in nearly 100 locations across 25 countries on five continents, Samsara, shot in 70mm, is the duo’s most ambitious project. Again, there’s a rush of amazing (if not always pleasant) imagery delivered without identifying titles, dialogue or voiceover. It’s a visual tapestry of the world and its people at their most mysterious, breathtaking and horrifying. And even mundane.
Explaining the amazing number of locations, Fricke offers, “The more places you have, the better. Our work is based on the power of flow we get from such a wealth of imagery and breadth.”

Documentaries of this ilk that journey afar as they aspire more to metaphysical than geographical revelations aren’t on every filmgoer’s itinerary. But with Oscilloscope Laboratories releasing at the end of August, both loyal fans and hopefully many new ones may enjoy this break into a non-verbal but visually splendid detour away from familiar commercial stops.

According to Wikipedia, the title, a Sanskrit word for “the ever-turning wheel of life,” refers to a "continuous flow," as in the repeating cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth/reincarnation of religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. For Fricke, the doc’s director, cinematographer, co-editor and co-writer, the film is “a guided meditation” on this cycle and “the pervasive interconnection of all things.”

A commercials director and feature DP who also served as DP and co-editor and co-writer of Koyaanisqatsi, Fricke sees Samsara different from previous Fricke/Magidson works because “it further develops my favorite themes—our relation to the eternal and the blurry boundaries between animate and inanimate.” What is important for Magidson is the overriding theme of impermanence and his desire “to deliver what moves me, to express the interconnection with people and life experience around the world.”

Settled upon such themes and transcendental goals, the duo, recalls Magidson, “began by looking for the kind of imagery that captured that, to find that out in the world. We started talking about all this in early 2006 and began shooting in January 2007.” Also an inventor and industrial designer, Magidson was the film’s sole producer, co-editor and co-writer. Fricke has been a photographer on a number of features and has worked on a number of IMAX-format films.

Perhaps the more spiritual and Buddhist of the two, Fricke explains their collaboration. Beyond agreeing on the concept, he and Magidson tossed around ideas on locations and “where we’ll get the most targets. Once on location, it’s up to me to decide where to dig it out, where to put the camera because that’s where I have so much experience.”

Considering their filmography, the team must also have a strong affinity for travel. Says Fricke, addressing such wanderlust, “My dad was in the military and as a kid I lived in Germany and France.” For Magidson, it’s not travel that motivates him but “a quest, a goal to bring back amazing imagery that conveys our themes.”

But travel they did, hitting, they guess, maybe 50 airports from where they set out to capture images running the gamut from unspeakable beauty to some unspeakable horrors, with many wondrous or even ordinary places in between. For Fricke, the most astonishing sequence is that of the sand-painting monks working atop the Thiksey monastery 12,000 feet high in Kashmir’s Himalayas. The monks painstakingly, almost grain by grain, apply brightly colored sand to a giant mosaic-like circle and, once the work is done, quickly destroy it. Recalls Fricke, “The monks gave us the run of the place. They did the painting in two days, then destroyed it in one afternoon. We had to capture that destruction in one take.”

Magidson, who calls the monastery “the most surprising place we found,” describes the ritual as “a metaphor for the monks of impermanence,” thus making the colorful circular sand-painting a perfect visual metaphor for their film.

The amalgam of shots and sequences that comprise Samsara is vast and kaleidoscopic. Amidst this plethora of images, and to cite but a fraction, are many cityscapes (Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dubai, L.A., etc.), entwined freeways of whizzing cars, soaring new residential developments, massive hotel lobbies, sprawling slums (São Paolo), a football field-size trash dump with legions of impoverished foragers (Philippines), nature at its most beautiful (Angolan waterfalls) or most wicked (a flood-devastated New Orleans room), extreme habitations (Mali cliff dwellings or the UAE’s modern Palm Island Development), tourist magnets (the Palace of Versailles, La Scala, the Pyramids), famous and obscure religious haunts (Notre Dame, St. Peter’s), people in factories or fast-food palaces, remarkably exotic African tribes, subways, prisons, national parks, the massive Beijing parade celebrating the birth of Communism and on and on and on.

One of the duo’s most fascinating and difficult coups was getting Fricke and his camera assistant into Mecca during the annual Muslim pilgrimage of two-million believers. This took a year and some trickery, details of which the duo cannot share. Fricke explains, “When we got permission to go, we weren’t allowed into the mosque but got a fixer who got us onto the nearby roof of a Bin Laden-built apartment/hotel complex. But our fixer didn’t clear this with the Bin Laden family, so we were told to clear out. But my feeling was that the world needs to see this, so I quickly got my shots.”

While Mecca and other challenging places were nailed, there was the “big fish that got away,” as Magidson describes their aborted effort to enter North Korea. “We tried and tried, but there was just no way in. Close but no cigar are Samsara’s views of South Korea’s demilitarized zone near the border.

“Getting ‘yesses’ was really more difficult with this one,” says Magidson about how Samsara stands apart from their previous long-distance docs.

Also grueling but successful was their two-hour hiking trek (which only amounted to eight seconds of screen time) hauling heavy equipment that got them to an Arizona Indian ruin in 100-degree heat.

Bringing the duo closest to death was the filming at an Indonesian sulfur mine where they were almost felled by sulfur gas. Recalls Fricke, “There was poison gas all around, with so much sulfur gas escaping out of the ground. It blinded and gagged you so that you stopped breathing and it almost got us.”

At its most dismal, Samsara delivers scenes in Chinese and other slaughter factories where chickens, cattle and pigs meet their mean fate in scenes made more grim by the absence of the film’s pervasive mollifying music score.

Regarding the logistics for such a vast undertaking, Magidson says that the duo worked with a small, permanent five-person crew, including Fricke’s camera assistant and a line producer, and hired additional on-location help like drivers. The filmmakers traveled long flights to get to most of their destinations, sometimes shipping equipment ahead (an astounding 25 cases of gear). Once in a country, they traveled by van or truck. For most of his work in the field, Magidson, whose focus as producer was on the small crew, additionally used two or three locals for support. He also went after the funding for the project, which came from unspecified sources.

What surprises is that the duo chose celluloid (and not even IMAX capture or handhelds rather than 70mm Panavision) over digital capture. Comments Magidson, “We began this project in 2007 and didn’t think digital was ready for us then.”

There were two camera systems—the main 70mm Panavision SUPER70—that, notes Fricke, weighs about 50 pounds fully loaded. He calls this ‘the ultimate format. It’s been around for so many decades but is still the highest-quality way of capturing imagery.” The smaller camera, also a Panavision, did the time-lapse work that, onscreen, turned days to nights and hours to minutes. Both cameras use 65mm film.

Samsara is 4K, meaning that it was scanned at the high rate into the digital environment so that a 4K projector can handle it for maximum effect with a DCP hard drive. “The 4K,” says Fricke, “has all that high quality of 70mm in digital output, embedded in that playback. 70mm still provides the best possible image.” The heavy IMAX was out of the question, he continues, “because we didn’t need a negative that big. And the Panavision lenses are the best.”

Advanced technology for the shoot, says Fricke, came by way of the camera’s gyro-mount used on the outside of helicopters for overhead aerials.

Yet, for Fricke, among the most difficult images to capture were those of the portraits of people photographed around the world who were asked to stare into the camera and not blink. One of the most moving, he feels, is a Tokyo geisha. He explains that these women, contrary to their reputation, are highly reputable. “They are hired entertainers, they sing, play instruments and do serve as escorts. We hired her because of the remarkable make-up. But in the hot light—and we didn’t know this would happen—she teared up. Yet she didn’t blink.”

With about 21 hours of footage shot, editing Samsara down to a reasonable near two hours was no easy chore and took a year and a half. Magidson and Fricke first organized the material into broad categories like organics, manufacturing, people in prayer, performance artists, portraits, etc. “To find the flow and structure, we used building blocks of two or three minutes of footage,” explains Magidson. The duo say they were guided by “what feels like it’s working profoundly on a human level in the heart and mind.” But this is no emotional-vs.-intellectual dichotomy. “A good way to say it,” Magidson declares, “is that we approach the material as an inner journey and interconnection about life around the world.”

Fricke explains their editing approach as a kind of meditative, intuitive reaction. “When images come together and feel right, it cannot be explained in words except that the images say something when you connect them.”

But what about the audience for such a literally all-over-the-map doc and image assault offering such a different experience and often challenging content? Magidson responds, “This isn’t the kind of film where you think about audiences, because you can’t make something in this way for them. It must work for us, meaning that we have to have something that resonates with us.”

Regarding the horrific animal slaughter scenes, Fricke explains, “This is about our kitchens where our food is prepared. You don’t see this in the U.S., but the Chinese were accommodating because their facilities are so clean and efficient.”

As for the doc’s lack of dialogue, voiceover or identifying text to orient viewers, Magidson feels “the film speaks beyond languages and nationalities. The aim of the film is not to provide information but an inner feeling and connection to all things. What more can I say?” Fricke adds that old conventions “would make it a regular documentary and there is a purpose beyond that, a kind of spiritual quest.”

Yet with so much wrong with the world (some of it on view in Samsara), don’t the filmmakers feel some obligation to show more than “how things are,” as they say? Magidson responds, “I just don’t know. We have a different aim. The problems of life are not personal here, but the meaning of life is and I believe that is what we’re after. We want viewers to feel a connection to other things around the world when they see our images, because showing powerful images is doing something. Solutions to issues require governments and other resources, and solutions is not what this is about.”

And even with the scenes of so many impoverished and imprisoned people and the mass slaughter of animals, the duo bear no dire message. “Our view of life is not at all pessimistic,” declares Magidson. “We’re just showing things and letting the essence of things reveal themselves, like still photography does.”

In fact, “message” here is not the correct word, says Magidson. “The hope is you feel a connection to your own humanity and what is eternal and that you value your time because it’s not long. So ‘message’ in an intellectual or point-of-view sense has no role here.” Fricke just wants viewers to be “in the moment” watching the film and to experience it as a “guided meditation” and be impressed by “the wonderful world out there that is full of everything, maybe like a Pandora’s box.”

Regarding future projects, Magidson, who also has family obligations, seems much less enthusiastic than Fricke on embarking again on such an ambitious project. “I’m still in the middle of this project, getting it distributed around the world and managing this distribution. On all our film travels, we’ve been to about 58 countries and that’s been a long road. At this point I can’t think about a next film and am not sure I want to continue in this direction. For now, I’m just concentrating on Samsara.”

Samsara ends its widespread journey on a “dry” note: an overhead traveling shot of a desert. Magidson explains, “This isn’t meant as a statement, but represents an ending that leaves things open-ended as it suggests moving forward into the future.”

To the very end, Samsara conveys that spirituality may indeed be a viable alternate route on this universal journey.