Ron Fricke’s panoramic global escapade from 1992 still offers a real feast for the senses.
Ron Fricke’s 1992 documentary Baraka offers welcome cinematic relief in an age of special effects, superstars and predictable, formulaic multiplex fodder. It defies tired conventions in a refreshing experiment which takes us on an epic visual voyage to see the wonders of the world. Baraka presents a real, non-fictional wonderland just as enchanting as Hogwarts, as grand as the kingdom as Gondor, but without the need for vast swathes of CGI trickery.
Presenting itself as ‘A world beyond words’, the film steers away from traditional narrative techniques and instead offers a thought-provoking, dialogue & plot free spectacle which speaks a language that is entirely visual. Individual frames weave a rich tapestry, captivating the imagination. Michael Stearn’s stirring score ranges from a brooding groan to an operatic cry and serves to intensify Fricke’s atmospheric visuals.
Divided into three loosely connected chapters, Baraka presents an appraisal of the planet in terms of its natural history and human geography. It also explores Fricke’s pet theme of humanity’s relationship to the eternal. The first and final chapters present a kaleidoscopic montage of both natural and human spectacles, including an observation of world faith, religion and custom. What distinguishes the two chapters is the theme of evolution – showing man’s intervention with the planet.
Perhaps the most interesting section comes mid-way through where the initially utopian landscape is interrupted by the destructive felling of a tree, which precedes an aeroplane soaring through the sky, its engine’s roar piercing the film’s quietly hypnotic soundtrack.
This imagery signals a change in tone for the film’s second chapter, a thematic visual critique of modernity, the industrial revolution and the subsequent dehumanisation of the population. Workers on a production line and commuters in transit depict a society engaged in the mundane and disengaged from each other – figures in motion moving blurrily and busily without connection.
Visually, Fricke casts a somewhat voyeuristic gaze upon the globe, his camera acting as a fascinated eye slowly surveying the scene in amazement. The film experiments with motion, using time-lapse photography to interrogate subjects from a new perspective. Frequently photographed landmarks such as Ayers Rock are the Himalayas are transformed into mystical creature-like forms.
The organised chaos of a New York traffic jam is re-energised into a surreal and playful display of pattern and light. Moments of contemplative stillness interject these frenzied flashes, capturing an almost statuesque immobility in the frequent intimate portraits of the human race, from inner city commuters to meditative tribespeople.
Whilst aesthetically absorbing, one could be forgiven for, at times, feeling a bemused speculation as to how all this imagery fits together. The film provides something of an alternate viewing experience and one which requires effort, perseverance and imagination. But the reward is truly mesmeric.
Published 13 Dec 2012
Tags: Ron Fricke
Widely regarded as one of cinema’s most stunning and inventive non-narrative adventures.
Around the world in 90 minutes.
A cinematic sight for sore eyes.
In 1992, Ron Fickle and Mark Magidson collaborated on an unusually captivating film called “Baraka”. They used a special wide-angle lens camera that they designed specifically for filming “Baraka”. In this 90-minute tour of over 20 different countries worldwide, director Ron Fickle selects exactly what to film and how to film it by the use of film language.
His eye for poetic cinematography contributed to the appeal of his film’s visual sensation. He was able to capture various natural landscapes and cityscapes across Asia, North America, Africa, and many other places of distinct cultures. Each scene, shot, and sequence, was carefully edited with a high degree of difficulty.
With the help of producer Mark Magidson, he and Ron Fickle incorporated time-lapse photography, free frames, and other series of editing to enhance their film’s content. Furthermore, they used film language to present an idea or message to the viewer about the global society. In addition to the interesting camera work and powerful editing, the choice of sound and music was appropriate for the scene, shot, or sequence it merged with in the film. “Baraka is an experimental film that both takes the viewer on a tour across the world and also explores the transition between old and modern civilization.
There are many incidents in the film of “Baraka” that one may find difficult to relate to or understand. With no sign of storyline attached to it the film is able to stretch the horizon of filmmaking and present many different aspects about one unified idea that deals with the shaping of our reality. It is hard for the viewer to pinpoint the main idea the film is focused on, but it is believed that the idea behind the film is about modern civilization overpowering traditional civilization. This particularly means that Western industrialization is challenging developing and developed countries in culture and technology. The poetic demonstration of western society dominating the global world informs the viewer that the western market is leading other cultures into becoming more like the west (or in other words, the Americas are westernizing the rest of the world).
The various sequences of the harming of the natural environment to the rise of busier city lifestyles gives one the idea that many global issues have risen as a result of industrialization. One may think the sole purpose of a film like “Baraka” is to reflect how human nature is influenced by modern civilization. This type of film is made to make people more aware that modern technology is destroying native lifestyles.
What sets the film Baraka” from the rest of the independent films in Hollywood is that it uses unique film language to bring the truth out of humanity and modern civilization. With the use of cinematographic techniques such as close-ups, zoom-ins, and long shots enhance the way the film is presented.
For example, in the two shots of a monk sitting down in the same meditating position with his back to the camera, the camera zooms in toward the back of his head, or into his “mind” (metaphorically speaking). The zooming in from the careful and composition of the monk’s back gives the audience anticipation and at the same time, reflects a message the act of meditating and what it can do for the human spirit. The zoom-in gives the impression that the viewer is entering somewhere or the camera is taking the viewer to explore something beyond. Since mediation allows one’s mind to let everything in, the zoom-in by the camera is putting one’s attention into the film so that he or she can let its content into his or her mind. “Baraka” uses the film language of sound to communicate or evoke an idea or feeling in a particular shot.
For instance, in a window shot of traffic rushing below from the top floor of a high-rise building in New York, a metallic clanking sound is overlaid on top of a combination of wind-blowing sound effects too create the feeling of city traffic rushing back and forth. The sounds incorporated here communicates that city life is fast-paced. A large portion of “Baraka” is devoted to editing such as the use of quick cuts and fast pacing. These editing techniques lengthen the duration of a shot by sustaining a close-up of a person’s face for some time before cutting to another shot. Some shots make up a portrait of a person’s face as they pose for a moment staring into the camera motionless. The expressions on the people’s faces in these portraits are reflective of their true inner emotions. A different emotion is captured in each portrait of the film.
Director Ron Fickle’s “Baraka” is an abstract film to understand but by considering the significance of the image behind the film’s title, which is an eclipse, one may interpret the eclipse as a symbol for modern civilization literally overlapping or metaphorically overpowering traditional civilization. This could mean that modern civilization is eclipsing the old civilization, as the film compares the undeveloped, developed, and developing countries together, that all share the influence of western industrialization.
Finally, the image shown behind the title s of the film “Baraka” is more significant than its title, which is an ancient Sufi word that means, “the essence of life from which the evolutionary process unfolds.” The time-lapse photography in “Baraka” not only hints the passing of time but also the passing of one civilization to the next. All in all, Ron Fickle’s “Baraka” is a masterpiece of a film that is so rarely made in Hollywood nowadays, that it ought to give Hollywood producers a run for their money.