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Non-Review Review: Baraka

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012. It will be getting a 20th anniversary re-release this year.

Released in 1992, it’s easy to consider Baraka as something of a spiritual successor to Koyaanisqatsi, a film which gave birth to an entire subgenre of non-narrative feature films designed to offer us insight into the working of our planet. It’s a natural comparison, as director Ron Ficke served as director of photography on that monumental film, and he clearly owes a debt to Godfrey Reggio’s masterpiece. However, I think there’s a substantive difference between how the two directors approach their subject matter, and the end result. While Reggio offers a more fascinating study of large-scale systems, Fricke manages a strange intimacy amidst his vast scale – there’s something considerably more human to Baraka, and I think that comfortably sets the movie apart. It looks as good as it did on initial release twenty years ago, and it still packs as much punch – even if it never looks quite as sharp as its sequel, Samsara.

Crazy world...

Baraka is breath-taking. You’ll be hard-pressed to find another movie that so skilfully captures the human world, in curiously universal terms. There are amazing accomplishments paired with bitter failures, offered in a manner that never seems to force the point. Without a line of spoken dialogue, Fricke has managed to create a stunningly accessible film – there’s no language barrier to transcend, no cultural divide to cross. Instead, Fricke provides a window through which his audience can take a small sampling of the world. What we read into it, or what we take away from it, is almost entirely of our own making.

It goes without saying that Fricke has an eye for beauty. Even if the picture doesn’t look quite as good as Samsara, Fricke still manages to capture the audience’s attention and to hold them. There are ancient marvels and new triumphs, untouched natural beauty and wastelands trawled by those struggling to survive. It is almost impossibly vast, and the credits list over 150 locations in 23 different countries. It’s almost hard to fathom the sheer magnitude of the world that Fricke seems to capture on film, making it even more impressive that he could so efficiently edit it down.

Fricke might even eclipse Reggio's accomplishment...

In a way, Baraka casts its net considerably wider than Koyaanisqatsi, which was primarily concerned about the relationship between man and nature. Here, Fricke seems to have loftier ambitions, traversing the globe and journeying from the ancient world through to the modern day. This does lend the movie a slightly uneven feel, but Fricke actually manages to make his project a little more intimate than Koyaanisqatsi. It’s an impressive accomplishment, but Fricke always seems to have a distinctly human element to his work.

He ensures that we don’t just see the world, but that we see the world through the eyes of those who inhabit it. We zoom in on the back of a meditating monk’s head, we stand with a Chinese guard, we worship with a primitive tribe. All these things work to give us a sense of human proportion in the impressive vastness of it all. They give us a sense of scale that is nearly unimaginable. In Samsara, the recently-released sequel, Fricke would arguably focus on the human element toomuch, with various disenfranchised people staring out of the screen as if silently accusing the audience. However, in this case, Fricke gets the balance perfectly right.

A towering accomplishment...

That said, while Fricke has a much more personal touch than Reggio, he is also somewhat clumsier in his visual metaphors. There isn’t a single shot in the film that is as smartly observed as Reggio’s clever comparison between a city at night and the circuits on a micro-chip. Instead, Fricke feels the need to force his comparisons, cutting back and forth as if to be sure that we get the none-too-subtle metaphor. We jump from people swarming through a subway system to the lives of chickens on a battery farm, but we keep going backwards and forwards. Fricke makes a comparison between modern-day tattoos and ancient tribal art, suggesting that body art is a means of connecting with roots that we lost – but he lazily cuts back to footage we’ve already seen, as if he doesn’t trust us to make the connection, or as if it was a last-minute insert.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a minor complaint, and a sign that Fricke is still honing his craft. There are images of raw power to be found in Baraka, and they are just as moving as anything in Reggio’s film. It’s hard not to be affected by a ghostly tour of Auschwitz, with a soundtrack composed of distant screaming. The place appears genuinely haunted – and it’s hard to think back to that sequence without feeling uneasy. Similarly, some of Fricke’s shots of those struggling in the third world are unsettling. The fact that the images are offered without overt commentary or any narrative or dialogue only gives them more impact.

It's the nature of things...

In fairness to Fricke, he also demonstrates a deft technique. In particular, building of Chronos, he has a wonderful skill for speeding up and slowing down scenes in order to make interesting comparisons. There’s a nice scene where he speeds up traffic patterns to create the illusion of herd movement. Time and again through the film, he returns to the imagery of the sky and the water – speeding up the footage so that the clouds break like the crests of waves. They reflect one another, with us caught in the middle. In one powerful little sequence, in the wake of the Gulf War, Fricke shows a sky filled with black smoke from the burning oil wells, and water black from the crude oil that has spilled over.

While Fricke’s imagery might be as powerful as Reggio’s, he is operating at a slight disadvantage in other departments. It’s hard to imagine Koyaanisqatsi without the iconic score from Philip Glass, a soundtrack so instantly recognisable that it has taken on a life of its own outside the film in question. People will recognise the familiar sounds Prophecy or Pruit Igoe without being aware of their origin, or even having heard of the film. While Michael Stearns gives us a stunningly appropriate soundtrack that blends well to the footage, there’s nothing as instantly gripping as Glass’ selections to be found in the film. The most recognisable piece of music from the score actually pre-dates the film, with Dead Can Dance contributing The Host of the Seraphim to the score, an eerie and ethereal companion to some moving images.

Reflections...

I will confess to being a bit disappointed with the transfer. Filmed on 70mm film, the first release to use that format since the seventies, the movie was converted to 8k digital resolution, and has set the standard for high-definition home media. One would imagine that bringing it back to cinemas would be an opportunity to broadcast the film at its finest, but the colours seemed strangely muted and the images weren’t as crisp as they should have been. I don’t know if it was the joy of seeing Samsara only a week earlier, but Baraka should have looked a lot better when projected to a cinema full of people. It’s worth investigating where the movie is to be shown before checking it out – after all, it might be more efficient to watch it on a home cinema system that it sets the standard for.

Still, Baraka is pretty essential viewing, especially for those looking to branch out a bit to try something new. Fricke proves himself a worthy successor to Reggio, somebody with a keen eye for the world – the triumph and the tragedy, the ugliness and the beauty, the ancient and the modern. I find it very hard to believe that anybody could watch Baraka and not come away from it with something.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

2 Responses

  1. I’m afraid the reviewer has it a bit backward – It’s Reggio who owed a debt to Fricke, who was the actual director of Koyaanisqatsi, but who didn’t raise the money and have the final say over who got credit.

    • Hey, I just go be the movie credits and my own abckground reading. It sounds like a collaborative effort, as between most directors and cinematographers. Still, it was Reggio who funded the film with money left over from an IRE fundraiser, and Reggio who convinced Coppola to lend his support to the film. While Reggio and Fricke both provided the artictic vision (as I understand it, it was a collaborative process), it was Reggio who got it made, just as it was Fricke who did the same here, while also fulfilling his role as cinematographer.

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