Samsara review, textual and visual

Samsara (Sanskrit for “suffering”), the sequel to the 1992 film event Baraka (“blessing”), has long been awaited, its treatment of various world-phenomena imagined and fantasized about. Having had the privilege to see the film, I can say that in some ways it is a blessing, following in part from Baraka, and it surely does depict suffering, human and non-human, in a number of forms. It is unclear, though, how interested the filmmakers are in aiding in the struggle to attempt to overcome the vast suffering and destruction caused and upheld by presently dominant hegemony: this follows from the work’s status as a mass money-making scheme—a racket. Of course, Samsara is not only a racket.

Like Baraka, Samsara is stunning in its portrayal of various manifestations of the natural and social beauty of Earth. Worthy of experience in this sense are the timescapes of arid climes set to the music of Armenian duduk player Djivan Gasparyan, or the depiction of Buddhist monks creating art at the opening of the film, signaled by a trumpet blast, presumably in Nepal or Tibet.

Beyond illustrating some of the positive and beautiful aspects of life and human society, Fricke in Samsara definitely also recognizes the social exclusion and structural violence of existing capitalist society: the film shows African cities and extensive “slums” in the Philippines, following similar coverage in Baraka of the favelas of Brazil and homeless people everywhere. Fricke also includes a few shots of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Moreover, he spends considerable time depicting the highly mechanized and hierarchical industrial-production regimes ruled by automation that are responsible for mass human alienation: a stand-in for this entire system could well be Fricke’s close-ups of bionic Asian human look-alikes, which are very close to their models in appearance but without the power of speech. Samsara is further testament to the inanity and absurdity of the totality of capitalist production: an extended sequence depicts the alarming assembly and production of weapons, armaments, bullets. Fricke then shows different males of color bearing small arms—different than in Baraka, in this film he omits treatment of imperial war-machines (bomber-jets, etc.), instead going here for historically colonized peoples who are shown as engaging in armed struggle without that positionality being situated within the violence of the reign of capital.

In the parts depicting African cities (Lagos, perhaps?), Fricke concentrates on the enormity of electronic waste exported to these materially impoverished communities—a capitalist trade-practice similar to the exchange of hazardous/nuclear waste, imperial war, and the arms trade. Samsara includes a sequence on impoverished peoples wading through landfills for objects to find and sell, in the struggle to ensure their social reproduction as well as that of those to whom they are attached. In Baraka a similar scene depicts South Asian females doing similarly, in a strong repudiation of capitalism:

One wonders (I wonder) how Ron Fricke and co. compensate the impoverished peoples they portray in these films. Beyond this, I ask precisely what Fricke is doing depicting a ritual performed in a Filipino prisoner whereby the imprisoned engage in elaborate dance for the pleasure of their overseers? Does Fricke mean to be critical of this practice, and/or the prison and the carceral system at large? As is evident to those who have seen Baraka, Samsara too carries a high risk of colonialism.

In keeeping with these considerations, the film’s introductory sequence closes with a fetishistic panning of the sarcophagus of one of the Egyptian pharoahs (Tutankhamun?), rising from the inferior tip of his phallic beard to take in and revel the youth’s facial beauty—or at least, its representation by the artists who adorned the pharoanic funeral-mask. In general terms, there is in Fricke’s film a special focus on pyramidal, inegalitarian structures, whether architectural and physical or more abstractly social: prominent in terms of the former are the Giza pyramids, Dubai, Gothic churches, the Vatican, Bagan temples, the Blue Mosque (Istanbul), and Mecca’s al-Ka’aba.

The film generally has an Asiatic focus, and unfortunately seems entirely to lack recordings from Mexico and Mesoamerica, and depicts little from the two continents of Abya Yala. In the segments from China, scores of children are shown practicing Shao lin kung fu, following the commands of an off-screen master, while compatriot workers separately are depicted as engaging in similar martial-exercise activities in preparation for labor in the factory. Near the film’s beginning, adults in Ma’asai bands are seen to be living convivially, proud of the infants of the newly born generations they share with the camera. The framing of these various others by Fricke is very particular: for example, there is no acknowledgment made in Samsara of the dire environmental conditions suffered in recent memory by the Ma’asai and the Turkana of northern Kenya—drought, desertification, death—for which imperial societies can be said to be responsible due to climate change. Similarly uncritical, Fricke’s take on religion in the film is not in any sense one suggestive of the desire to break with religiosity; Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism are instead taken as an integral aspects of human development over the millennia, seminal contributors to the historical expression of beauty.

Against these mindless suggestions, those who oppose patriarchy can for example hold the processions in Mecca critically, noting for one the total exclusion of females from the areas adjoining the Ka’aba, just as the children trained in kung fu can exercise their skills in defense of their lives and that of humanity and the chance for revolution.

One remarkable part of Samsara is an extended sequence near the film’s end regarding the brutalization of non-human animals—chickens, cows, pigs—that are slaughtered for human consumption. Fricke includes harrowing scenes of decapitated pigs being carried down an assembly line for further processing; he shows the sadness of a sow giving of her body to her newborn piglets—behavior that normally would aid in their survival and flourishing, were they not imprisoned later to have their lives destroyed to satisfy brutish human tastes. The scene by which this disturbing act opens shows the saddening harvest of chickens from their overcrowded pen, as operated by a machine which efficiently and coldly sucks one bird at a time into a tube destined for some off-screen location in the slaughterhouse. Indeed, this very scene, like the sequence taken as a whole, follows from Fricke’s similar depiction in Baraka of the methodical, systematic burning-off of the beaks of chicks destined to cohabitate in industrial-agricultural conditions, until they were to be slaughtered—their beaks forcibly being removed so as to prevent the overcrowded chicken population from killing each other in a craze, and so averting “capital losses.”

Close in time to the animal-slaughter sequence, Fricke in Samsara also shares a segment of film on the industrial production of white-skinned, female-bodied sex models, with their immense breasts and putatively arousing face makeup. No connection is made by Fricke as to who the buyers of such commodities might be—whether Euro-American, Asian, and so on—but, juxtaposed with the scenes of the brutality of animal slaughter, the inclusion of this treatment of patriarchy could well be taken as a strong indictment on Fricke’s part of social relations which promote objectification—commodification, but more than this: domination, in general. It is to be hoped that viewers will consider adopting and advancing vegetarianism and anarcha-feminism after watching Samsara, however divergent this may be from the filmmakers’ likely goals.

Unlike Baraka, Fricke’s new film does not dedicate much of the film’s reel to the depiction of imperialist-capitalist societies—other than flybys of the financial district of downtown Los Angeles that seem more celebratory than critical. While Fricke does not show viewers some of the many destructive realities that arrangements like Los Angeles demand in the present—Iraq is entirely absent from Samsara—we ourselves can conceive of the vast scope of world-alienation these entail, recalling a myriad of images and moments not depicted by Fricke: the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill; the devastation of the Niger Delta; the degradation of the Amazon rainforest (shown in Baraka); the destruction prosecuted by U.S. imperialism since 1992, particularly in the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq; the fate of the Arctic sea ice; the dying oceans.

Samsara is not the environmentalist Home (2010), nor is it Werner Herzog’s haunting Lessons of Darkness (1992); it is not much of a profound investigation or consideration of the phenomenon of catastrophe, a perennial and central feature of late capitalism—as our present world shows. An art-work which comes to mind that can serve as Samsara‘sfoil of sorts is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The World for World is Forest (1972), a novel which depicts the life of the Athshean humanoids who reside on an entirely forested planet that is progressively destroyed, its residents enslaved and murdered, following attempted colonization of Athshe (simultaneously “forest” and “world” in the tongue of its indigenous peoples) by humans from Earth. This brutalization comes to an end only with the generalized rebellion of the Athsheans against the infrastructure of systematic oppression—an image which the contemplation of history also suggests to us, as in France in 1789, Saint Domingue/Haiti in 1790, France again in 1871, Russia 1905 and 1917 (February), Spain in 1936, and so on. The various insurrectional attempts made by the colonized and formerly colonized peoples of the South of course also belongs to this tradition—this doing-other and -against in relation to capitalism and domination.

Clearly, Samsara and its developers have limitations; they are not revolutionaries, nor do I think the film can be considered revolutionary art. As already noted, it is at least in part—if not largely—the work of a racket, one that unsurprisingly does not focus its lens on some of potential means by which we can conceive of liberation from the ills it does consider—insurrection, mass-general strike, blockade of capital, agitation, revolt, revolution. The importance of the film in my opinion can be found in its celebration of beauty on the one hand and its examination of the mass-collective nature of human society on the other. This latter consideration in particular is critical for the present, as mass-action by the subordinated—the constituents of existing society—could against conformity and passivity be activated toward the end of intervening and resolving many of the serious problems illuminated by Samsara, as well as the numerous others we can think of using experience, knowledge, and mind.

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