Nov. 4, 2017

Baraka ~ Film Review

A Documentary film presented entirely without words, Baraka was directed by Ron Fricke and produced by Mark Magidson, in 1992. The lack of narrative in itself is likely something that would turn many people away from wanting to watch the film in its entirety, as they may pre-conceive that it would not hold their attention at all. On the contrary, the film is spellbinding and delivers a very clear message. The Trailer is preceded only by the words, "A challenge, a gift, a warning, a blessing".

Shot entirely on 70mm film, this in itself is unusual, in that 1992 was well past the decline in the use of this media. The production has become so important, that Fricke's work is mentioned in the Wikipedia definition of 70mm film. The subsequent film Samsara, by Fricke and Magidson was also filmed using 70mm. This aspect of the production, along with no narrative, the stunning visual footage, and the music it is paired with, have made the films a topic of philosophical discussion for many years since.

Much of the music is composed by Michael Stearns, with other contributions from Inkuyo Ensemble, the band 'Dead Can Dance', an alternative music group from Australia, composer David Hykes, a pioneer of overtone singing, and Dr. Lakshminamayana Subramanian, whose album Global Fusion brought widespread critical acclaim.

While some may argue about what the message actually is, it is immediately transparent in that it is meant to be contemplative, covering the innocence of our world, its orient beauty and the desire of mankind for peace and harmony, then delivering stark contrasts that awaken us to the horrors of mechanization, commercialization and consumerism, pollution, and the ultimate disregard that humans have for mother earth, and for each other, in conveying the atrocities of war to our eyes and hearts.

What soul could not be moved by this combination of music and images? Clearly it would be one who does not have sympathy, empathy, or any sense of compassion. Perhaps it is one who can listen, but does not hear, or who can see, yet chooses not to. Are we indeed awakened? It seems that the ratio of those who are awakened versus those who are oblivious would result in very polar numbers.

The film begins with the meditative music of the flute and drums, primeval sounds from some of the earliest known instruments. The haunting qualities of these sounds are paired with images of jagged mountain peaks, massive and cold, evoking both feelings of incredible isolation and yet awe for the huge creations that the earth herself has heaved up. A monastery sits precariously on the side of a cliff, and the viewer knows that its position in the world is purposefully there, in order for the monks to find peace, unity with the earth, and closeness to (their) God.

The overall effect is to make one feel quite small and insignificant, even as we are a part of nature itself, we are here for a mere microsecond of time, compared to these monoliths that have already been in existence for an eternity, and will last eternities more. The speck that we are on this blue planet, and the increment of time in which we will exist, could likely be compounded millions of times before we can comprehend our place in the Universe, if envisioned similarly to the repeating patterns of nature found in fractals, as they divide and replicate. We are chaos and we are order, and we know not why, but it must be this way.

The musical drone makes us want to close our eyes, to fully explore the continuity of the sound equating to the constance of life, but we cannot, because we want to see the next image, and watch the unspoken story unfold. The drone, or an Om hum, has been a foundational aspect to human expression since the earliest vocal sounds were made, and became more prevalent with the advent of Gregorian Chanting. It seems to reflect the underlying vibration of the world and of the mind, using the tonic of the scale that is being used, (in some cultures, the scales can have more than just 12 pitches, so this becomes more interesting to listen to and perhaps adds more mystery.) and it can evoke a feeling of being grounded or connected to one another, and to the earth.

Our desire for peace has been in existence since the dawn of time. Even animals desire peace and harmony, and most certainly they are examples of the duality of beauty and ferocity that nature can create. This was evident in the footage of the Japanese Snow Monkeys, soaking in the hot springs. They know that this is a soothing, peaceful, and relaxing environment, and they gravitate to it, quietly sitting and enjoying the heat and healing qualities of the water. There is more than a glimmer of intelligence in those eyes. In this place, they do not need to compete for the attraction of the opposite sex, or vie for dominance in their tribe.

For a moment we are shown the stars spinning in the cosmos, a reminder of the passage of time and again of our size. Taken back to the Snow Monkey, we are reminded that stillness, and even nothingness is something to strive for, because we have surely forgotten how to do this.

We are taken from the isolated peaks to the essence of today's civilization, busy streets humming with activity, and then through an array of rituals, seemingly performed by every Eastern and Mystic Religion. The visual spectacle of the rituals is rich with vibrant colours, textures, and rhythm, beating out our hearts' desires, pulsing and gyrating, swirling, swaying, and staring, expressionless and unblinking, suspending heartbeats in a meditative state. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, the Sufi Order of Islam, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodoxy, Hasidic Jews, and more, all seeking the same thing, Nirvana, peace, truth, love, serenity, and awakening. The rituals are brought to life even today, with some of the most basic forms of music and chanting.

As the music intensifies with a more pulsing rhythm, the viewer is transported through rice paddies, past ancient ruins and intricate buildings and monuments. A tribal chanting interrupts this, with video of waving arms, undulating fingers, all in perfect unison, an organized pattern that has been passed down for aeons. Are they warding off evil spirits, or possibly inviting a good spirit to bestow her blessings upon them, or are they praying for food, or good weather? Western eyes would view these rituals as pagan or heathen, regarding their manner of dress and body art to be primitive, and then judging them as to have little intelligence, when in fact the opposite is more likely true ~ they have a greater gift than we do, because they have found how to live in harmony and to work together to create their own 'world', full of love and compassion, and they do so without the benefits of technology and modern medicine. We should be envious.

Intermixed with images of volcanos erupting, the grandeur of the world's deserts and rock formations, clouds moving by in time lapse, and a full solar eclipse, murmurations of birds, and thundering waterfalls, we are again reminded of the vastness and ferocity of our planet, the untamed and even the uncharted; the symphonic chords take us again to creatures basking in the sun, and they look seemingly wiser than any of us. The Director uses both slow motion and fast motion film to stir our emotions or to lull us into dreamy surroundings.

Suddenly, our reverie is broken, by a chainsaw, followed by a massive tree falling, and taking others with it in the process. Mines are blown open with explosives, the raw earth torn apart. Our eyes next must endure flooded plains and devastation caused by man, and then, extreme poverty, dwellings cobbled together out of any available materials, built on top of one another; panning past huge apartment complexes that are all slums, and we see quiet expressions, the blank, hungry eyes of those who don't know that they will never know anything else, other than this. Yet it is evident that in even the poorest of circumstances, the human spirit is such that it can derive happiness still.

The music becomes repetitive and more disturbing at this point, building in its intensity. Fricke's selection of imagery drives home the condition that our greed has created, laying bare the sweat shops and automation; the sexing and rough treatment of tiny, helpless chickens is painful to watch even for a meat-eater, and must be even more so for a vegetarian or vegan. New York whizzes by, chaos on the streets and yet somehow there is an inherent hierarchy. We go back to an assembly line, watching the workers repeat their tasks endlessly. They do it because they MUST, because it is all that is available to them, and we know that they are being used, and taken advantage of, and not paid a fair living wage, and we are still ungrateful for the things that we have, because of their labour. Most white collar viewers must ask themselves at this point, “How can they do this work? Where is the gratification in it?” We forget that they do not have a choice, it is for their survival, and it is all because of the lot they were cast ~ where they were born, and to whom, what Caste, what village, what country.

At some point in this frenzy, the music becomes unbearable. It is still music, but more akin to 'noise' in that its repetition and pitch, and choice of instruments make it unpleasant to hear. One must contemplate now, that perhaps without seeing the distressing images at the same time, we could tolerate this music, but paired together, our hearts and minds are churning in response. The artist is pointing out how blind we really are, en masse; how entitled we have become, how avaricious.

After we are subjected to this onslaught as a reminder of the sad state of the world, we are then seized by images of military might and power, matched by ritual pipes and drums, the armies of the world, and we are made to view the atrocities that this world has endured, since the dawn of man. The barbarity of mankind existed long before mechanization; it was always there, since the time the first tribe crossed the mountain path and coveted what another tribe had, or decided that their religion or their God was superior and thereby tried to assimilate. The history of war cannot be shown in mere minutes of a film or described properly in one essay, but the author of this film deftly takes us into hell and again, reminds us that this is of all of our doing.

In watching this film a second time, I chose to watch it in its entirety and not take notes at the same time. The first time I wanted to capture detail and make observations. The second time, I wanted to be fully absorbed in the experience. I listened more to the sounds and the music this second time, paying closer attention to some of the rhythms I was hearing ~ feeling them and trying to imitate them. I listened for the silences. I allowed the sounds to wash over me and to feel the vibrations and I was again reminded of the resilience of the human spirit. I was reminded though, that in our world we desire balance, and in this film the stark contrasts between the ‘haves and have-nots’ struck a different chord with me on the second viewing. It’s not balanced, our world, in fact, it is very highly imbalanced. There is more chaos, more pain, and more suffering, more poverty, than there is order, joyfulness, peace, or wealth in our world. I did not need to look up any statistics to know inherently that this is the message that the film wants to state.

While I am still enthralled by the film’s conveyance of the beauty of our world, I remain horrified by what we have done with it, and with ourselves. It is disturbing and eye opening all at once, even to those of us who have traveled, and seen Third World Countries, seen the slums. I am grateful though, that in addition to having seen and experienced these things first hand, I have also been fortunate to breathe in the astounding beauty of many of the world’s wonders, to step into Cathedrals, ancient Temples and Markets, and Monasteries high atop the rocks in Meteora. I believe that travel is a way to enlightenment, and even though I write a decent Blog and take some nice photos, I could not have captured my travels in the same way that Fricke and his team have done. The film’s direct effect on me was to cause deep reflection on the pain and suffering in the world and to wonder what I can do about it. I know that music is a uniting force, and I am so glad that I have chosen it to be a vehicle in which I can express myself; perhaps I can help in a small way.

We are a dichotomy in ourselves. We want peace, yet we are constantly at war. Most viewers would likely prefer to return to the beginning of the film, to experience the peace, the beauty, singularity of the sounds, than to be reminded of what we have become. Fricke's film serves to humble our arrogant 21st Century selves, without even uttering a word.


Photo taken in 2005 ~ a trip to India in which I was able to capture a lovely snapshot of this woman with her child, not far from one of the shantytowns. They had nothing with them, save the tin jug, and carpet , yet I saw this beautiful interaction between mother & child, under a make-shift canopy, in 104 degree heat…with garbage flying by.