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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Disaster Zones and Natural Wonders: Talking with Samsara's Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson

Posted By on Thu, Sep 13, 2012 at 7:30 AM


Here are some facts about Samsara. It is a non-verbal, non-narrative survey of human and natural and industrial wonders of the world, shot on 70-millimeter film in 25 countries over the course of five years. Its title is the Sanskrit word for "the ever-turning wheel of life," which should be said to include death and rebirth. Co-conceived and co-edited by producer Mark Magidson and Berkeley-based cinematographer-director Ron Fricke, it is a natural extension of the duo's earlier work -- 1985's Chronos, an enthralled portrait of time's passage, and 1992's Baraka, a wordless dialogue between humanity and eternity -- which in turn was prompted by Fricke's work as the cinematographer of Godfrey Reggio's 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, whose title is the Hopi word for "life out of balance." Samsara is a film that seems equally inspired by planetary exploration as by the most mind-blowing bits of 2001, or what you'd get from Terrence Malick were he brave enough to just ditch the the notion of plot altogether. Here are some things Magidson and Fricke recently had to say about it.

SFW: Please describe how you came to be collaborators, and, in general, how you work together. Mark Magidson: It goes back to 1983. That's almost 30 years! We met at a screening of Koyaanisqatsi. I got dragged there by my girlfriend at the time. Ron Fricke: Really, she dragged you? MM: Yeah, that's true. Anyway, I was just blown away. I think that it helped that I knew nothing about it. RF: If you knew anything, you wouldn't have gone, for sure. MM: I had an engineering background, and here's this guy building a camera ... RF: Working on Koyaanisqatsi, I was the editor of that as well, and I remember thinking, 'This thing should have been shot in 70-millimeter.' IMAX as just breaking at around that time. So I built this time-lapse camera ... MM: And we ended up making Chronos. RF: Then we realized it wasn't long enough or big enough in scope. MM: That led to Baraka. And I should say, it's really hard to fit these films into your life. They take so much. But there's nothing I'd rather be doing in film than this. I think we both feel like we could not be doing anything more meaningful. RF: We just found this form, this guided meditation, and my heart stays with it.

SFW: How has moviemaking, and moviegoing, and the world itself, changed for you between the releases of Baraka and Samsara? MM: I hate to sound like a presidential candidate, but I do think that communication technology has shrunk the world. RF: I can sum it up in one word: YouTube. That was a great resource for us. And yet, at the same time ... MM: ... We hate the thought of our films being shown on an iPad. SFW: Well, yes, for all its meditative neutrality, Samsara also struck me as a reclamation of big-screen spectacle. Are you advancing an argument about the medium? MM: Not an argument, necessarily. I think it's more about expressing something. RF: Image is our main character. That camera gives you the essence, the fidelity you're looking for. It just wouldn't work out there with a low-res image on a small screen. SFW: Also, even striking images seem to be getting more abundant and ubiquitous nowadays. By now I've seen Indonesian sulfur miners in another documentary, and I've seen Filipino prison inmate dance choreography on YouTube. Seeing them in Samsara is different for me than it would be otherwise. How does this sort of familiarity factor in to your approach or its results? RF: You haven't seen them in 70-millimeter. MM: Not to take too much credit, but I do think that a foundation for that kind of imagery was created here. RF: We're not going to shy away from subjects because people have seen it on YouTube. It's how much you're absorbed by it and respond to it. MM: Also, the structure: There's the power within the shots, and then the power within the sequences, and then the power within the whole. RF: I don't like hearing that we've seen it all. It's like: No, you haven't. You're just a lazy-ass looking at the Internet! The world's an amazing place. There's all kinds of stuff out there. There still are many opportunities to take ordinary things and give you un-ordinary views. SFW: So how do you go about gathering material and deciding what to include in a film like this? Is it like, 'We've been to 20 countries but you know what, let's do five more?' RF: The more material, the better! MM: It's evaluating the type of material, and constantly revisiting. Do we have enough portraits? Enough performances? Enough organic images, or manufacturing, or people in prayer? RF: We're looking to find a flow, to put you at ease to watch it. MM: You start to find some connections that you couldn't have written. There's all these opportunities to find the way images connect together. Knowing that it's not meant to be a delivery of information, that helps. It's nonfiction imagery, but it's not about information, as many documentaries are. It's a different animal. And it's not as easy as it looks!

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Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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