Now over 20 years old, Baraka still stands up as a film of beauty, subtle observation and a thought-provoking study into issues of environmentalism, religion and life itself.
Filmed in 24 countries over a 14 month period, this non-verbal documentary from filmmaking partnership Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson is a wonderfully constructed series of images concerning almost all aspects that affect life in its many forms. Unlike Samsara (2012’s follow-up piece), Baraka takes a much more sedate worldview, opening with beautiful natural images of mountainous ranges, unique wildlife and remote indigenous peoples.
From its opening sequence, religion is clearly a theme that is present throughout the film. Intent on showing the interconnectedness of the world, images of monks at prayer, Jewish worshippers at the Western (or Wailing) Wall and many more are intertwined to show the impact that belief systems such as these have around the world. Similar comparisons are drawn throughout, such as tribal behavior and sprawling urban movement around the globe. Guided only by the intensely formed soundscape, the film’s function is not to tell you about the world, merely to show it to you.
From the natural world to the bustling movement of urban environments such as New York and Tokyo, Fricke’s ability to show different ways of life around the world but still keep them connected and whole is truly skillful. One sequence of time-lapse photography in the central section of the film connects the movement of New York traffic with that of people in temples, hotels and public transport in a blurring montage of kinetics and percussive soundtrack.
As the first film in 20 years (upon its release) to be filmed in 70mm format (an extremely high definition film format developed in the 1950s), Baraka’s appeal is in its appearance. Each shot appears in crystal clarity, a fact that is sorely needed, as without a verbal guide, Baraka must rely on its purity of image to sustain its running time. As the film continues through scenes of ruined temples, vast populations around the world (such as those in abject poverty), natural wonders and man made destruction, it is clear that Baraka is pure cinema, without influence or authorship to distract from it.
The result is that meaning can be divined on a more personal level, allowing us to take what we will from the film. The far eastern content that makes up most of Baraka is a welcome insight into lands and practices that are unknown to the western world. Of course, there are moments when meaning is easier to interpret, such as the scenes of deforestation being followed by crafted images of tribal children living in forests. Moments such as these interrupt the ebbing flow of the film’s hypnotic nature, but do still have a relevant point to make, and one that is not forced too harshly.
The true joy of Fricke’s work is the truth of it. In a cinematic landscape dominated by special effects and imagined worlds, Baraka shows that natural landscape and the wonders of this world do not need to be artificially created, but merely discovered.
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