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Filmmaker’s Pick: Sit Back, Relax, and Prepare to be Spellbound by “Samsara”

Still from the film "Samsara"

On occasion, documentary filmmaker Rebekah Fergusson will be sharing film picks as well as notes from the field on CDS Porch. First up, her thoughts on Samsara, groundbreaking Bay Area–based filmmaker Ron Fricke’s newest work. Rebekah is a 2007 graduate of Duke and the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), where she received both a Certificate in Documentary Studies and a Julia Harper Day Award. She was a director, editor, and director of photography on Pelada, a CDS and Southern Documentary Fund–supported documentary about street soccer around the world. Pelada, called “close to pitch perfect” by the New York Times, premiered in 2010 at SXSW and was an official selection at a number of other festivals, including the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and the Newport Beach Film Festival, where it won an Outstanding Achievement in Documentary Filmmaking Award. Based in San Francisco, Rebekah is currently producing, shooting, and editing short video projects for the web and working behind the camera on documentary films, including a work in progress about the controversial Proposition 8 court case in California.

Samsara: Directed by Ron Fricke. Produced by Mark Magidson. Written/edited by Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson. 1 hr. 39 min.

Young Buddhist monks in training stare as their elders painstakingly create a Mandala sand painting; dusk falls as the camera floats over the golden temples of Myanmar; a family of four eats at Burger King, rhythmically raising and lowering their Whoppers and soft drinks; a gun-shaped coffin is slowly lowered into the ground at a funeral in Accra.

There are no traditional characters; there is no traditional narrative; for ninety-nine minutes, there is no dialogue. The achievements of Ron Fricke’s newest film, Samsara, lie in amazing globe-traversing cinematography, including stunning time-lapse shots—we’re talking eight to twelve hours of shooting for ten to twelve seconds of footage—from the original master of time lapse (Samsara builds on Fricke’s earlier work in Chronos and Baraka.) Fricke, producer Mark Magidson, and a minimal crew made Samsara over the span of five years, shooting in 70mm film in more than twenty-five countries. Scanned for 4k digital projection, the film pairs images with an original composed soundtrack in an effort to reach what Fricke calls “a guided meditation.” If that terminology conjures mantras and yoga, think more along the lines of a moving-image portrait of human existence (lofty sounding, yes). Samsara finds beauty in struggle and destruction where other documentaries might find heavy-handed calls to action—garbage pickers, factory workers, animal slaughter, and sulfur miners to name a few (as it happens, the same Indonesian mines from Workingman’s Death,  a 2006 Full Frame festival award winner). The word “samsara” signifies a restless cycle of creation and destruction to which unenlightened existence is bound—we see immense cathedrals flow into time lapses of nighttime L.A. traffic; shots of pig and chicken slaughter factories leading to the head-shaking time lapse of a family meal at Burger King, the music timed perfectly to the ups and downs of hands and mouths; a young L.A. father covered in tattoos cradling his infant daughter with such intensity that you know he’s forgotten about the sixty-pound 70 mm camera sitting in front of him. That’s the essence of Samsara: Moments that defy the need for dialogue, let alone any overt message.

Samsara is playing in select theaters nationwide; in North Carolina, the film is at the Regal Park Terrace 6  in Charlotte and will open on Friday, September 28, at the Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill, the Galaxy Cinema in Cary, and the Fine Arts Theatre in Asheville. On another North Carolina note, Samsara screened at the 2012 Full Frame festival in Durham as part of the invited programming lineup.

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