Movie Journal – 5/5/2012

Baraka (1993)     4.5/5

Directed by Ron Fricke (MPI)

Shot in 70mm, Baraka is a large-scale, experimental documentary, fusing together image and sound to craft an awe-inspiring vision of life. Director Ron Fricke has described the film as a “guided meditation,” the title often being translated as “blessing” in a variety of languages. And a blessing it surely is. Through a wide array of shots, captured in “24 countries on six continents” (in addition to some beautiful footage of the cosmos), Fricke provides a breathtaking piece of art that examines what it means to be alive on this planet. There is no voiceover, no dialogue. The film’s tagline, “a world beyond words,” pretty much sums up the entire package.

What Fricke examines is loosely divided into three categories: nature, nature interrupted by human activity, and the aspects of nature that have continued to live on, coexisting with humanity, and prompting us to discover our own place within the natural world. From volcanoes, to tribal ceremony, to Auschwitz, Fricke shows us things that many of us will never have the opportunity to experience in real life; in other cases, he shows us things that we may very well know of, but tend to purposefully ignore. The context of the imagery we see (where it was shot, or even what it is) tends not to matter; Baraka‘s significance lies in the overall themes that it addresses, through a kaleidoscopic trip that feels startlingly fragile and real.

In the case of Fricke’s film, the medium of cinema is used to bring us closer to our world; to enrapture us in things that may be essential to our understanding of existence, but might not appear to us in any other way. It is a wonder how many of these shots were even obtained. Fricke, who was the cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 art film Koyaanisqatsi (which was arguably the first of its kind), basically makes a follow-up to that film through Baraka, despite the fact that the prior film has two sequels of its own. For fans of that film, it is slightly frustrating to see how Fricke uses imagery that is almost exactly the same, especially during the film’s time-lapse city sequence. Yet Baraka certainly has a different tone, and a slightly differentiated message. Case and point – if Fricke had wanted to make the same film again, he would’ve hired Philip Glass.

The score by Michael Stearns is impressive, giving every moment its due emphasis. In defense of Fricke’s repeated techniques, it is more interesting to note his cinematographic skills as an aspect of genre, rather than his own stylistic fetishes. There is plenty of experimental cinema out there, but Reggio and Fricke created their own subgenre; the Earth-focused, cinematic tone poem, examining nature, humanity, and technology without utilization of the spoken word. Ron Fricke’s sequel to Baraka, Samsara (distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, founded by the recently departed Adam Yauch), premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September, and will likely garner a limited release before the end of the year. One can only hope for more of these films. Along with their incredible imagery, there is something else that is similar between each picture made by Reggio and Fricke. The credits roll, you walk back out of the darkness, and into the world. You think about what you have just seen, and what you are now seeing. And after learning so much, you then realize there is so much more to know.