How two filmmakers turned sulfur mines, slaughterhouses, and trash heaps into breathtaking cinema
In the era of Instagram photo filters and quick-and-easy snapshots, filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson still do things the slow, hard way. Their lavish, ambitious films without words require unwieldy analogue equipment and Phileas Fogg-scale travel—not to mention a crew willing to journey 1,000 miles for eight good seconds of footage. Their best-known work to date, Baraka (1992), did not feature dialogue or recurring characters, relying instead on powerful images and propulsive music to tell a global story. Roger Ebert, who included Baraka on his "Great Films" list, wrote that it could be offered to aliens as an adequate explanation of the human race.
Samsara, which screens in select theatres this fall, is the latest Herculean effort from Fricke and Magidson, their first movie in 20 years. Shot in dozens of locations across 25 countries, their sequel to Baraka took five years to make. Every frame was captured with 65mm cameras, a gorgeous (and expensive) widescreen format that offers unparalleled detail but requires bulky equipment, voluminous hard drives, and an arduous film-to-digital conversion process. The crew also hauled a custom-built, 30-year old timelapse photography system—the same one used in Godfrey Reggio's landmark documentary Koyaanisqatsi (1982). (That film brought extended timelapse sequences to moviegoers for the first time, and Fricke was cinematographer.)
The resultant movie is "a nonverbal guided meditation on birth, death, and rebirth," Fricke told me in an interview by phone. The title comes from a Sanskrit word for an Eastern religious concept: the flaming wheel of life, a restless cycle of creation and destruction that typifies unenlightened earthly existence. As the film depicts different forms of birth and death in natural wonders, manufacturing processes, and religious rituals, we glimpse some of the world's most impossible sights: The temples of Burma by hot-air balloon; the slopes of a Hawaiian volcano oozing with bright, molten lava; the locked-away bowels of a Filipino penitentiary. The movie plunges into the modern scenarios, too, with many scenes of industrial creation (the inside of a Chinese "factory city") and destruction (a junked car wrecker in Sun Valley, California).
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The filmmakers traveled for six to eight week at a time, and their quixotic, globetrotting errands required grueling commitment. "It's hard to maintain that energy and intensity for five years to make something that you can watch in an hour and a half," Magidson said. But the result is frequently breathtaking: In the words of one awe-struck YouTube commenter, the film"is like reading a thousand National Geographics at once."
I spoke with the Madigson and Fricke about the challenges of filming in five of their most difficult locations.
Food Processing Facilities, China and Denmark
Samsara is noteworthy for showing scenes of industrial food production that typically remain hidden from American audiences. At the Mariesminde Poultry Farm in Denmark, we watch a bizarre vehicle sucking up live chickens with a vacuuming snout; seconds later we watch an automated kill line slitting poultry throats in Changchun City, China. In another Chinese facility, thousands of cleaver-wielding workers clad in Hi-C pink biosecurity suits dice assembly-line cabbages.
I asked the filmmakers if it was difficult to obtain access to these locations, so rarely seen by American viewers. "In the U.S., we got a lot of no's when we asked to show the kitchen were your food is made," Fricke said.
"The gas and smoke you can see in the film was pure sulphuric acid," Magidson said. "I was feeling it in my lungs for months afterward."
Chinese producers, though, didn't demonstrate the caginess and secrecy that typifies large-scale American agriculture. Instead, they were happy to let the light in.
"They were interested in showing the efficiency and cleanliness of their factory," Magidson said. "In fact, the poultry facility actually required us to put their corporate logo in some of the shots."
With their crew of five filmmakers, the Samsara team spent eight-hour days—clad head-to-toe in plastic safety suits—to film in the hectic, hot, factory confines.
"After eight hours, we were ready to go," Magidson said. "I can't imagine working there day after day."