Meditative and wordless, Baraka is a documentary about planet Earth which is a single variegated sequence of beauty; a flow of wonderfully rich impressions, spanning landscapes both natural and cultural. Humanity is looked upon as a wondrous natural creature making its mark on the planetary environment, shaping it into a set of human habitats that are depicted non-judgmentally, as being neither constructive nor destructive, but simply an expression of diverse human lifestyles.
We see scenes from all over the world; religious rites, work-places, the bustle of commerce and places of rest and peacefulness, all conveyed with an accompaniment of local music that helps identify the geographical locale. It is an intriguing exercise to guess where in the world we are being taken, as the scenes shift from Australia to the Amazon jungle to African villages and Asian production lines (the end credits list the locations, for those who’re not content with guessing). From country to city, from agriculture to heavier industries. Always shifting between nature and culture.
Sometimes you don’t even know what you’re looking at. There is a scene of a great mass of birds flying, and leaving some kind of trail in their wake. But are they flying so high that their very body heat is causing the cold air to leave a steam trail, or are they flying so low across a body of water that their wing beats leave little waves on the surface? You cannot immediately tell. But the beauty of it is overwhelming.
There is a clear contrast being made between places in which human life is slow and “primitive” and has a serenity and character all its own, and places – usually cities – where life is going at break-neck speeds, and people make up an anonymous mass, comparable to sheep or battery hens. In the scenes portraying hectic life the filming is speeded up, and now there does seem to be a judgment going on; the urban rat race does not possess the same emotional and spiritual contentment as the simpler, slower life. To appreciate the purity of life and nature, the movie seems to say, we should take the time to feel it properly, in order to experience the sense of belonging that we ultimately yearn for. Civilisation is perhaps alienating us to our own true nature.
This point is hammered home towards the end of the movie, when we are taken on a tour of death, through Nazi gas chambers and Khmer Rouge atrocities – layers of skulls piled on top of each other. Modern civilisation entails violence on a massive scale, which the soundtrack mourningly bemoans. The next sequence is about Egyptian, Mayan and Aztec ruins; an attempt to teach us that if we persist in our violent ways, ours will be the next extinct civilisation. But there is a way out: we can repent and cleanse ourselves, as the Indians do in the holy river Ganges in the long following sequence.
The next and penultimate sequence, too, is about religious worship. Not perhaps merely for moral cleansing, but to signify the mystery of life coming to an end. As with the beginning; the process of coming into the world, the concept of death leads us to momentous spiritual musings. Where did we come from and where are we going? Perhaps there is an afterlife. Or perhaps, as in the final sequence, the cosmos will go on without us, passing through eons of stars and stone and clouds before finally (?) coming to an end itself.
It is in any case an astonishing journey, overbrimming with intense impressions. A unique experience.
The image quality of this new Blu-ray release is absolutely astounding, almost as if it had all been filmed yesterday. This is owing to the restoration (as a 7-minute featurette informs us), which has been performed through the scanning of each individual frame of the 65 mm negative, digitizing the movie at the highest possible resolution (8K!!). The result is utterly breath-taking, and I actually believe the crew when they say that this is the highest-resolution disc that has ever been made.
The Blu-ray also contains the 76-minute behind-the-scenes feature “Baraka: A Closer Look”, in which we hear, among many other things, that “Baraka” means “the breadth of life”, and we hear how the film came to be.
As of this writing I have not yet seen Samsara (2011), which is a kind of “sequel” to Baraka, but seeing Baraka makes me very eager to experience Samsara as well. I remember seeing Koyaaniqatsi on its theatrical release in the early ’80s, and now I am absolutely going to revisit that cinematic milestone of artistic documentarism as well as its sequels. Because this stuff is dazzling.
Baraka is released on blu-ray 14th January 2013.
Director: Ron Fricke
Runtime: 98 min.