Sunday, 5 February 2012
Baraka (1992) dir. Ron Fricke
By Alan Bacchus
Ron Fricke was known as the cinematographer and key collaborator of Godfrey Reggio on his seminal 1983 film, Koyaanisqatsi. His time-lapse imagery was an innovative milestone in cinematography, and almost 10 years later Fricke went out on his own and pushed the technology of time-lapse cinematography even further by shooting his own version of Koyaanisqatsi, which became Baraka.
Baraka was shot entirely on 70mm film, the experience of which on the big screen becomes an all-enveloping immersion into Fricke's earthly spiritual journey. On the small screen, the filmmakers have attempted make the Blu-ray edition of the film a comparatively grand experience. Never-before-used 8k resolution scanning and the complete digital restoration of Baraka are billed as the best High Definition transfer of any film on Blu-ray.
Unfortunately, Koyaanisqatsi continually casts a shadow on Baraka. It's difficult not to compare the two. Similar themes of environmental irresponsibility, urban decay and mass consumption are conveyed using many of the same images and juxtaposition featured in the earlier film. But based on Fricke's evolution with his own techniques and the stunningly crisp and detailed 70mm images, Baraka has every right to stand on its own.
With the environment currently in vogue, Baraka seems even more relevant and contemporary today. Unlike the BBC's Planet Earth, Baraka is not only about landscapes, nature and the environment, but also the people who inhabit the earth. It's told without narration or subtitles indicating the location or area of the world we're in, as the imagery is meant to wash over our senses like an abstract painting.
The opening intercuts a number of different cultures' specific rituals of worship. The unifying images are the faces of the individuals deep in spiritual thought – all have the same expression. Fricke finds the right faces to draw us in. However banal they might be, without any movement, expression or emotion an unknowingly observed face seems as fascinating as any of the complicated motion controlled time-lapse shots.
The scene that jumpstarts the film into high gear is the beguiling Southeast Asian hand waving tribe. Whether it's dance or some kind of ritual or worship, we are never told which country or tribe they’re from or exactly what purpose the ritual serves. The elaborate ceremony is a beautifully choreographed movement of hands and bodies, punctuated by an intense chanting accompaniment.
Though we had seen many of the images already in Koyaanisqatsi, it’s still a wondrous way of looking at our planet. Clouds floating across mountains become animate living beings, while the mass consumption of our lifestyle appears lifeless and sanitary.
The one missing element needed to take the film to the level of Reggio's films is a musical accompaniment as big as Fricke's cinematography. Michael Sterns' atmospheric moody music doesn’t come close to the grandeur of Philip Glass.
For years Baraka was revered by pot smokers as a film to get high to and let wash over them like gentle rain. Watching the film high or not produces the same effect, a marvelous visual essay imploring its audience to get out of our bubbles and reconnect with the planet like our ancient ancestors. Enjoy.