Samara is nothing if not ambitious. Part documentary, part trance, it’s a cinematic state-of-the-union address that could easily be titled Earth 2012. There’s no script to speak of, just an audiovisual round-the-world journey from the pyramids to a Filipino prison to a fetid sulphur mine in East Java. “The sulphur mine was the toughest shoot,” Mark Magidson, the film's LA-based producer-co-writer-co-editor, says. “There was a wind shift and we got buried in this cloud of sulphuric acid vapour. You couldn’t breathe, lying on the ground trying to get air, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.”
Over a period of five years, Magidson and director-cinematographer-co-editor-co-writer Ron Fricke – they also collaborated on 1992’s Baraka – took a small crew to 25 countries on the hunt for bold imagery. The film eases between cityscapes, mountain temples and sex-doll factories: “The approach is to show the inner connection of life around the world. Samsara means birth, death and rebirth, another word for impermanence. Ron likes to call it a ‘guided meditation.’ We’re guiding the experience – not micro-managing it. It allows the viewer to add something, a personal kind of experience.”
Samsara, along with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, is one of only a handful of movies since the 1970s to be shot on 70mm film stock. “There’s nothing in digital that rivals that – I’m sure that day is coming, but it’s not here yet.” The cinematography is the star of the film with support from an eclectic original score. “We’re so fortunate to have Michael Stearns [composer] – the music is really half of the experience. You’re speaking past language and past rationality. Everyone can understand that – just music and images.”
Samsara appeals to the instinct in every filmgoer to be blown away by spectacle. For Magidson, it’s about capturing “those hard-to-find locations that people aren’t familiar with”. And yet some images had to remain on the wishlist: “In North Korea they have these mass performances every summer; it’s like a surreal Busby Berkeley musical on steroids.” Despite years of negotiations the North Korean government in the end forbade the filmmakers from shooting the festivities. “That’s kind of the one that got away. Maybe next time.”
Samsara opens Dec 26.