Samsara is a Sanskrit word that translates as continuing flow. “We use that title because our film is about the cycle of life,” Mark Magidson, the film’s producer and writer tells Free Press Houston in a phone interview. With director Ron Fricke the two have made Chronos (1985 IMAX short); Baraka (1993) and now Samsara, all shot on 70mm film stock. “It’s a film about the impermanence of life too,” says Magidson mentioning the opening sequence of monks making a detailed colored-sand mandala, itself a symbol of samsara.
Samsara unfolds without dialogue, without subtitles, with one sequence after the other shot in the world’s most exotic places. A volcano in Kilauea, a building that appears to be perched on the roof of the world in Burma (also known as Myanmar), a giant head in Southeast Turkey, cliff dwellings in both Arizona and the African landlocked country of Mali that appear to be completely similar, sulfur pits in Java, a pilgrimage to Mecca, a company called Fantasy Caskets (with appropriately bizarre caskets) in Ghana, a French painter and artist named Olivier De Sagazan who creates creepy art involving a green face mask before our eyes, as well as views of Delicate Arch and El Capitan (National Park landmarks) that are different than you’ve seen them – all unrolling with precision sound and editing along with a gloriously serene soundtrack (composers Michael Stearnes and Lisa Gerrard).
Samsara achieves a brilliant visual look mainly due to the 70mm photography, itself a dinosaur and perhaps the last time a feature film will be shot in that format as the traditional film companies are offering less and less film stock for sale. This year The Master and Samsara are examples of films shot in 70mm, yet the last film shot completely in that format was Branaugh’s Hamlet in 1996. “At the time we started production we wanted to get the highest levels of resolution but digital only offered 2K,” explains Magidson. “The state of the art is always moving, so we shot in 70mm and then output to digital scanning at 8K.” When Samsara opens this weekend (at the Studio 30 and Sundance Houston) the prints will be projected in 4K digital, which Magidson assures me will look bright and spectacular. “The files themselves are 30 terabytes.” Fricke was also the cinematographer on the feature documentary Koyaanisqatsi, which is kind of an uncle of this genre of films, with Mondo Cane (1962) probably being a distant grandfather.
The team was very small, about five people with extra help hired depending on the location. The cameras used, a Panavision Super 70 as well as another 70mm camera that had been rigged a self-built time-lapse function, weighed about 50 pounds each, but consider that the batteries weighed about 40 pounds and then realize that some of the shots required equipment to be carried by hand for miles. “We would work out the amount of time the image would last, and then do the math and work out the number of frames per second or even minutes as the case might be,” says Magidson.
“We put aside three to four days a month to use the full moon for night time-lapse, it’s like a giant key light in the sky,” adds Magidson.
— Michael Bergeron