“Out of life comes death and out of death, life. Out of the young, the old, and out of the old, the young. Out of waking, sleep, and out of sleep, waking. The stream of creation and dissolution never stops.” – Heraclitus My first memory is snow. There were no words for anything yet, but I was in the arms of one who was almost the entire world to an infant. The word would be Mother. The voice of the other one who made that world was there as well. He would be called Father. Gentle stabs of cold speckled my face, like little tongues of winter. The world was dark and the sky was falling in pieces of white. The chill pressed against me, breathing on my neck, but I kept watching the sky fall. Mother bundled me into the droning beast which waited in the snow, covering me with warmth. There was movement. I could hear Mother and Father but not see them anymore. From my warm place in the humming darkness, I was looking up and out, watching the heavens dance for me alone. Later, I would know that the droning beast was the ’68 Camaro that my parents still owned after I was born. Most likely, they were fastening me into the car seat after a visit to my grandparents’ house, which (considering the snow) would most likely have been the evening of Christmas. All of these things are more concrete facts, ascertained through logic, deduced later from the events of our lives. I’ve been told that, since I would have been less than two years old, there’s no way I could really have this memory. Yet I do. It’s these images, and the moments in time surrounding them, which convince me. When we remember, which is the only way to know all of our life that preceded this very moment, we mostly remember in images and sensations. Our memories, thus our experience of our entire life, do not tend to include words. Memory is a matter of synapses, neurotransmitters, and electrical-chemical interactions, but there’s a bit of magic involved too. With each new experience, the brain rearranges connections between its cells to incorporate these new snapshots of time. We filter out almost everything that assails us every day, else we would be too overwhelmed to even make it out of the house each morning. Therefore, in order to take these mental photographs, we have to really be paying attention to the things we want to remember. We stop, we breathe, we listen, and we look closely. Our minds, on some level, are going Zen on us, slowing down and getting meditative, for there to be meaning in our lives. Our memories are much like the images we see in the film SAMSARA. Images, along with sound, are the only things there are to work with in this movie. It could be considered a documentary, but there is no traditional narrative and the only true character is a series of locations and the people found within them. Director Ron Fricke has called SAMSARA a “nonverbal guided meditation on birth, death, and rebirth.” Producer Mark Magidson says it’s “more about feelings and an inner journey than an intellectual experience.” In the space of a hundred minutes, we are transported around the world to sacred grounds, disaster zones, industrial sites, and natural wonders. There are people, places, and events here that most of us will never get the opportunity to experience, and there are moments as mundane as people shopping in a really big department store. But none of it has ever looked as amazing as this. The film reunited Fricke and Magidson, who had worked together on BARAKA (1992) and CHRONOS (1985). Filmed in nearly a hundred locations in twenty-five countries over the course of five years, it was photographed entirely in 65mm film (one of the few films to be shot in this format in the past 40 years), frequently utilizing a custom-built motion-controlled time-lapse camera. These filmed images were then scanned into the digital format to yield the best possible viewing experience. The 2008 re-release of BARAKA onto Blu-ray has been widely regarded as the peak of video quality, and all of the techniques used in that restoration went into this film as well. All three of these films owe a debt to the Qatsi trilogy of Godfrey Reggio, who perfected the cascade of time-lapse images, and whom Fricke worked with as cinematographer on 1982’s KOYAANISQATSI. SAMSARA begins with three brightly colored dancers, their faces painted in an almost cartoonish version of femininity. They are swaying about, smiling and bobbing their heads with attitude, and pivoting as a group. They are both delicate and funky, and something about their size seemed odd to me. But they are a very compelling start to what would be an exhausting cinematic journey. There are no title cards here, or anywhere in the film, to let you know what you’re seeing. That’s all beside the point, really. But I did look up many of the things I witnessed over the next hour-and-a-half. The three girls were performing a traditional Balinese dance called the Legong Kraton, which is characterized by the intricate finger movements, as well as the expressive gestures and facial expressions, in this short sequence. Dance is very connected to life itself in Bali. This particular one originated as royal entertainment – a king dreamt it and subsequently made it happen – and is often danced at public festivals. The dancers are typically girls who have not yet reached puberty (which explains the strange size I mentioned). They begin rigorous training at the age of 5 and are regarded highly by Balinese society, usually marrying fairly well. From the funky little dancers, we are suddenly thrust into a billowing gray plume of smoke. The music now is more somber, laced with the wordless vocalizations of Lisa Gerrard (whom I instantly recognized from the semi-gothic world music group Dead Can Dance). Fire erupts into the sky and pours down the side of a mountain in an impressively hellish display of pissed-off Nature. I would later learn that this was the Kilauea volcano, from the southeastern side of the Big Island of Hawaii. One of the most active volcanoes on earth, it has been having a nearly continuous eruption since 1983. The caldera at the volcano’s summit is said to be the home of Hawaiian goddess Pele. But I knew none of this as I took in the ferocious fire on the screen ahead of me. From Bali to Hawaii, we now encounter what appears to be an infant, unmoving, under a gentle pale light. Is the child asleep or is it dead? My eyes barely have enough time to take in the smoothness of its skin before the image has become that of a very old man, the etched lines of his face frozen forever in mummification. Or has he been turned to stone by the eruption of a volcano? Even as the question forms, he is already passing from the screen, to be replaced by the familiar golden visage of the boy king known as Tut . . . At night I would climb from my bed while my parents slept. The house was dark and quiet, except for the white noise of the fan which always hummed in the hallway each night. With my blankie and my pillow, I curled up on the floor, inches away from the whirling blades. The wind in my face was all that I felt. It was the only sound on earth as the wordless voice of the air itself whispered me back into the unknown void of sleep. After no more than ten minutes of watching SAMSARA, I had begun to get really annoyed by the movie. This was certainly some of the most amazing filmed photography that I’ve ever seen, but I had no idea what the hell was going on. There were no words, and each beautiful sequence flitted to another that was equally as beautiful. But for what? At thirty minutes into this, even forty-five, there was nothing concrete for my mind to latch onto. I started thinking about everything I had to do today. I started thinking about all the things I would have to look up now as well. And here I was, watching the longest, albeit most lovely slideshow ever. I just felt like I was wasting time. But then, wasn’t this movie at least a little bit about time? Samsara is a Sanskrit word belonging equally to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. It alternately means ‘world’, ‘wandering’, or even ‘the wheel of life, death, and rebirth’. For the purposes of this film, the best description might be what the Buddhists refer to as the continuous flow of existence. Consider it like being trapped inside an immense spinning wheel that contains all of the things of life. While there is certainly beauty to be found in your never-ending experience of tumbling about, it would eventually lead to an unbearable sense of confusion and exhaustion. I imagine that even the most beautiful things might come to bring pain. Buddhism has taken as many detours from its origins as Christianity has, with all the corresponding varieties of belief still coexisting. The most basic understanding, however, is that we are born to die, over and over again, until we reach the permanent heavenly state known as Nirvana. Imagine having lived your life, going to an afterlife once it was over, but then being yanked back into another earthly existence full of bodily pain, income taxes, and presidential elections. Nirvana is, more or less, getting a magic ticket that says you don’t have to leave heaven again. This wheel of constant arrival, departure, and return that lead up to enlightenment are essentially samsara, which is what a young prince named Siddhartha sought to escape. Jesus said “the kingdom of heaven is within you”, suggesting that it might not be so much a place as an inner state of awareness. The goodness and potential of this world is inside of us. However, there also dwells in humanity a heart of darkness, which is where our true devils come from. In this same spirit, samsara and Nirvana could be considered one and the same. Some have said that one does not have to go anywhere to enter Nirvana, that everything is here and now, and it is merely a matter of how it is seen. The suffering and the reward are not opposite sides of the same coin, but they are, together, the only way for the coin to exist. This is similar to the way that Buddhism sees everything as being impermanent, interconnected, and ultimately all flowing together. To experience life fully is to do it with the realization that everything is fleeting. We cannot lasso a rainbow or bring the sunshine home in a jar, but we can experience them in the moment that they happen. This impermanence makes everything even more beautiful. On the roof of a Thikse monastery in northern India, two young monks in yellow hats blow conch shells, which echo across the deep valley below. An old woman touches her prayer beads, silently chanting. Fledgling monks race around a prayer wheel, each of them giving it a spin to send their compassion out into the world. They scamper into an inner room of the monastery where the older monks are painstakingly constructing a brightly colored mandala made from sand. Each of the monks leans in close, drawing the scene with tiny grains and copper funnels used as both pen and paintbrush. Their work is truly amazing, as each new line, curve, and even tiny eyes on characters appears right in front of us. But I know that all of this beauty will be destroyed by the end of the film. I had fallen behind as we walked through Milham Park on a bright summer day. My brother was somewhere ahead with Mom. No one seemed to notice that I was gone. My attention had fallen to a group of baby ducks that were floating past with their mother. Kneeling down beside the stream, I spoke sweetly to them. Here ducky, duckies, I said, enchanted by the fuzzy yellow babies. I picked up some stones and began pecking them at the water around the ducks. Then I took aim at one of the babies. It wasn’t meant to be a kill shot, but he was so small. As he sank beneath the water, the world spun. My stomach twisted. I kept watching, waiting for him to pop back up. But he never did. His mother squawked and thrashed about at the loss of him, hurrying the rest of her family away from me. I raced to catch up with my own mother. Critical reactions of SAMSARA were varied, from those who felt it was frustrating and heavy-handed to others who were wowed by the incredible cinematography and had an uplifting personal experience as they watched it. Some critics felt annoyed that they were being preached to. Sure, you can get that if you choose to. There is a strong scent of patchouli hanging over parts of the film. But, as I began to realize toward the end of my time with the film, it’s all a matter of perspective. There is a sequence that moves from poultry harvesting machines in Denmark to pork-packing plants in China. The image of a tractor scooping live chickens into whirling blades and hurling their carcasses into a chute on the other side does make me consider being a vegetarian. Seeing piglets clambering over each other to feed from an immobile, caged mother almost seals the deal. From here, the scene flashes to hordes of human beings in a grocery store and on to several obese Americans gorging on fast-food. Some viewers considered this an unfair social critique, as if the events shown do not exist and are entirely unrelated. There is another series of images which shows the manufacturing of bullets, then has the nerve to suggest that people are killed by bullets. This is a simple fact, like saying that we are killed by knives, automobiles, or cancer. This has become an extremely reactionary world, however, where no one can say a word about anything without someone else taking that word as an accusation. Fricke and Magidson claimed that they avoided any overt political views in assembling SAMSARA, but sometimes reality can be very political. Especially now. What seems more apparent to me in the film, however, is the interconnectedness of everything being put on display. There is cause and effect chasing after each other, human karma leading to the pain of samsara and then back again. But there is beauty amidst the pain, so everything keeps rolling. The connection between parent and child seems to be one of the easiest themes to extract from the hundreds of images here: A series of children baptized into their families’ beliefs in various churches. A family of tribal people in Mursi, decked out in whiteface with bones for adornment. A warrior mother with reddish dreads, strong and beautiful, staring (through film editing) into the coiling snakes of a big-city freeway. In a pile of shacks outside a shining city, a young mother is seen kissing her infant through a glassless window. Or the heavily tattooed man, in utter adoration of his newborn daughter, covering her sleeping face with loving kisses. What would any of these people not do for the love of their children? The first few months following the birth of my son were the most difficult. The presence of a child had torn a hole in the universe, left doors unlocked and slamming in the wind. I needed some kind of certainty, but everything had become so jagged and fragile. There was a vulnerability that had never existed before. You can baby-proof a room, but not the entire world. He was crying in the middle of the night again. He had been fed, and changed, and his blankie was right there beside him. Nothing was working. I knew this was a job that I wasn’t meant to do, that I would never be fit to be a father. I was crying almost as hard as he was now. So I lifted him up from the crib, with the tears in my eyes. I pulled him to my chest, this tiny creature, so he could hear my heartbeat. And I began to talk to him. I don’t remember what I said, but I know the words didn’t matter. I touched his face and his hands that were so small in my own. I baptized his head with my tears. Then, soon, his own crying stopped. He breathed silently. In, out. In, out. We were both at peace. By the time the final images of SAMSARA passed across the screen, I had made my peace with the film. Maybe this was its first lesson for me: that I need to chill out, slow down, and just let everything go for a little while. It felt like my own sometimes desperate attempts, as someone born and raised without religion, to latch onto a god or heaven that worked for me. There were times when I tried to force something into my heart merely because I wanted it to be there. But nothing forced is ever true. I am no more Buddhist than I am Christian, pagan, or even agnostic. Instead, I seem to have accumulated lessons from them all in my lifelong quest to understand why I am here. It’s the same quest we all take, with varying degrees of questioning, certainty, and doubt. You don’t need to know anything about Buddhism, or even the samsara of the title, to give yourself to this film. It’s as much about Christians, Muslims, and Jews as it is about Buddhists, with the devotional practices of each being featured prominently among its images. It’s also not so much about any of them as it’s about the family of Earth. The most effective sequences in SAMSARA are steeped in the spirituality of life without necessarily being related to any particular faith: Soaring like a bird above the jagged peaks of a snowy wasteland. The sensual poetry of golden sandscapes, a barren tree in the desert at night, time-lapse photography of the starry sky whirling above our heads. Over two thousand temples dotting the green landscape of Burma like a magical land of fairytales. The Human Waterfall in the Middle Eastern metropolis of Dubai, where human sculptures with arms outstretched appear to be plunging down the four stories of cascading water. A mother, or a father, kissing their child amidst the hopelessness of poverty. All the while, the film is almost as beautiful to hear as it is to see, like a sonic quilt of world voices. Maybe it’s good that there’s no clear way of thinking about this film; that I don’t get from it what all the critics and explainers tell me I’m supposed to get. Therefore, I can decide for myself what it means to me. Maybe that’s the best way to think about religion, and even about life itself. It was snowing on the day my mother died. The moment had been coming for a long time. In the final month of her life, we talked about what might be coming afterward. She had always told me that there was nothing but darkness. I told her that if she ended up somewhere, she had to find a way to let me know. Though it was an impossible promise to keep, she told me that she would. She was not entirely cold yet when I got to my parents’ house. But she was very still. My father and I stood and watched as the men from the funeral home loaded her onto a gurney. We said one more goodbye, then they pulled the blanket over her face. My father and brother didn’t want to see, but I could not look away as they wheeled her from the house and down the sidewalk. The long black sedan waited in the driveway, so dark against the February backdrop. For just a moment, my mind was calm, silent. I thought about the first thing I ever remembered seeing and remembered that she was there. Then I looked up and saw that, at least for the moment, it wasn’t snowing anymore. The sky had stopped falling. Lakota medicine man Black Elk said that the power of the world works in a circle and that everything tries to be round. Circles tend to represent the spiritual journey as well, no matter what religion you subscribe to. Life comes from death, and death comes from life. The old come out of the young, and the young from the old. We often end up not that far from where we began. My own journey has been a spiral so far, being in essentially the same place now as when I was young, but at a higher level. The impermanence I see all around me makes everything more frustrating, but it can also make it more beautiful. The pain of samsara, like Nirvana, possibly even like heaven, is maybe not so much a place. Maybe it’s a state of mind. At the end of SAMSARA we return to the monastery in Thikse, as I knew we would. The monks gaze down upon the result of their grueling labor on the brightly colored sand mandala. It is a truly beautiful thing to see. There is a look, almost of triumph and pride, that passes across the faces of these supremely humble people. Then they push all of the sand to the center, destroying what they have created. The world of clearly defined colors, forming many different images, has now become one color blurred. With cupped hands, they scoop up the sand. It slips from between their fingers into a bowl on the disappearing mandala. Later, according to tradition, they will carry the sand down the mountain and pour it into a river. Then they will start all over again. – j. meredith Writing is not like working construction, but it can still be hard work. There’s a lot of time, thought, and sometimes even research that goes into every article appearing here. If you are reading this, then it was written for you. Please take a moment to “like” this, or any other piece, and feel encouraged to leave a comment (even if it’s to disagree with what you’ve read). See larger image Samsara [Blu-ray] Prepare yourself for an unparalleled sensory experience. Filmed over a period of almost five years and in twenty-five countries, SAMSARA explores the wonders of the world from sacred grounds to industrial sites, looking into the unfathomable reaches of man s spirituality and the human experience. Photographed entirely in 70mm and transferred to 4K digital projection format, SAMSARA s mesmerizing images of unprecedented clarity illuminate the links between humanity and the rest of nature, showing how our life cycle mirrors the rhythm of the planet. Neither a traditional documentary nor a travelogue, SAMSARA is a guided meditation on the current of interconnection that runs through all of our lives. New From: $14.50 USD In Stock Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.