Samsara is not a million miles from what you would imagine if you heard a cinematographer was going to direct a film. It does away completely with plot and characters focusing exclusively on the ability of the moving image to hold a mirror up to our world, which director/cinematographer Ron Fricke does exceptionally well.
Shot over the course of four years on five continents the film has an incredible scope that is impossible to explain. Towards the beginning the film is edited in a stream-of-consciousness way where a wrecked church in New Orleans is followed by a Gothic cathedral, or a woman with body-modification nursing her child in an African tribe is followed by images of a heavily tattooed man in Los Angeles with his own child. However this globe-trotting free-association is later tied together to reveal Fricke’s intention.
The film utilises many photographic principles in portraiture and contrast, but the best sequence to demonstrate the capabilities of the cinematic format follows our meat from the farm to our plates. He shows us scenes in time-lapse of a highly efficient international chain by which humanity subjugates entire species and kills, packages and prepares them in a way that makes our everyday mechanisms seem like those of an alien race. It is shocking to see our interconnected lives in such naked clarity. There is no attempt to show the cruelty of the slaughterhouses or to conceal the way we treat animals like products, it is a refreshingly honest look at how humanity operates.
This sequence is also where the geographical meanderings of earlier scenes become clear. In the film Japan is where the animals are kept and assembly-lines prepare the carcasses for export. In America the meat is consumed in supermarkets and fast-food restaurants. A later scene shows a poor African village next to a dump. The dump is filled with the shells of old computers which this particular village clearly could not have produced or consumed. We are forced to see things that are usually hidden from us, where the products we consume come from and where they go when we’re done with them, and it’s unsettling.
This is a film that will not benefit from being watched on a four inch smart phone screen. It is absolutely crucial to the effect of the film that it be watched in the cinema. The visuals are so precise and glorious that a large screen in a black room is the only option. Being mostly a silent film the soundtrack is a prominent part that adds to the otherworldliness of the picture.
It is possible to see this film as a purely visual experience, but in a world where governments establish themselves on concealed information it feels political by looking closer, longer and deeper at the world and the mechanisms that sustain it than those of us who live in it tend to do.
In Irish cinemas 31 August. Watch the trailer.