Thursday, August 9, 2007


Director: Ron Fricke 1992

Thinking of the possibilities of film, especially those not realized to any significant degree, one must approve of Baraka, a film that is both loved by many and despised by many. I am in neither camp.

snow-monkey in hot springs

Here is Hal Hinson of The Washington Post, reviewing it in October, 1993.

“Shot in 24 countries on six continents over a stretch of 14 months, this completely wordless, plotless film by director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson fulfills the "magic carpet" promise of the movies to a previously unimagined degree. Floating high in the air, you peer over the edge of a gurgling volcano in Hawaii, then sweep down to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, or Ryoan-Ji temple in Kyoto, or Lake Natron in Tanzania, or the fire plains of Kuwait, their oil fires burning like the eternal flames of the dead.”

& again:

“Definitely, Baraka is from the Joseph Campbell school of mystical-mythical pseudo-anthropological neo-Jungian New Age filmmaking. And yet very few artists of any kind possess the determination that this team shows to get it not just right but perfect. As a result, nothing in this epic visual poem is less than extraordinary. The film's curious, gliding camera (Fricke serves as his own cinematographer), Michael Stearns's eclectic, ethnic score, the slow, silken rhythms of the editing, the choice of subject and location, all these things contribute to the movie's spell.”

& here is an IDMB critic:

This slick collection of 'breath taking' landscapes and decontextualized, largely aboriginal peoples, attempts to thread together a global panorama that ends up levelling all of human culture in its mawkish will to universalize. It winds up playing like an extended tourist board advert, or else the bloated music video to a new age concept album, and winds up reeking of saccharine, entirely apolitical, sentiment. As such it would no doubt appeal to those desperate to find a shred of profundity in their entirely meaningless existences, but for the rest of us there can only be a sense of nausea at this cinematic violation of human rights. It is only its well meaning political correctness that seperates it from the numbing Faces of Death films of the nineteen eighties. Avoid at all costs if you have a shred of integrity.

Bromo caldera volcano, East Java


Summary: Nature is GOOD. Primitive tribes are GOOD. The Holocaust was BAD. So is WAR. Our everyday life is TOO FAST and leads to the TORTURE of BABY CHICKENS. PEOPLE, although not YOU because you are GOOD because you felt bad about the BABY CHICKENS, should SHAPE UP BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE.

& here is my old friend “tedg” at IDMB

Native people are not intrinsically wonderful. They are as evil and ecologically inept as we. The magic is in the difference, not the being itself. Romanticizing something as is done here, does a great disservice because what we see has nothing to do with what or who they are, and everything to do with excuses we make to ourselves in order to exist.

Friends, when you watch these "natural" people, take a moment to consider that everything you see is posed. Every scene was prefaced by the director arranging and prodding and placing them and us just so.

Consider that every photo you see here of nature is perfectly framed to be wholly contained in the boundaries of the screen: Nature isn't like that, it’s an infinite flow. What we have here are the motivational posters neatly snipped from nature and bounded. These are sound bites and as a result are every bit as repulsive as political utterances from the "other side."

One scene is a ritual ceremony of lovely native women undulating. Its truly wonderful cinema. No mention of the ritual itself: celebrating the scarring closed of pudendal lips after circumcision. There's a nice scene of an Australian marking his face with color. It says a lot that the color is acrylic and the instrument he is using is a plastic comb.

I like “tedg” – (s)he’s one of my favorite IDBM reviewers. “the red duchess” is my absolute favorite, though. (see link)

Most of the IDMB reviewers who love Baraka really go over the top, but we won’t hear from them today.

Baraka was filmed in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Kuwait, Nepal, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, and the United States.

Very early in the film there is a snow monkey sitting in a hot spring, just grooving, in the mountains of Japan. The monkey looks so intelligent. Eventually, (s)he looks up at the sky and closes his/her eyes. Meanwhile, there is a snow leopard somewhere in the background. It’s one of my two favorite segments in the film. When the film moves on and unfolds, it is easy to imagine the whole spectacle as a dream the monkey is having.

Director Ron Fricke was the cinematographer for Koyaanisqatsi, the first of the Qatsi films by Godfrey Reggio. Koyaanisqatsi has been compared to a coffee table book. I have not seen Koyaanisqatsi, but I do like (some) coffee table books. I was sufficiently put off Reggio’s film by the fact that Philip Glass composed the music for it, that I did not see it. Criticisms of Baraka made it seem like something that you’d want to hide under the coffee table. What I liked about it was very simple, the basic idea of a wordless film without a literal narrative. Fricke claimed to not have an agenda, but there does seem to be one, satirized in the “NATURE is good” comments above. I didn’t care about that. I didn’t care that the narrative was lacking in any real point of view about its images, such as the oil fires of Kuwait, burning on after the 1991 Gulf War. I’ve seen Baraka several times now, and it always creates a fantasy of having the opportunity Fricke had, making this film, and of what I would do with it. I’d have more monkeys. And poets.

The one sequence I do love in the film is
the Balinese Kecak Dance.

"Kecak (pronounced: "KEH-chahk", alternate spellings: Ketjak, Ketjack, and Ketiak), a form of Balinese music drama, originated in the 1930s and is performed primarily by men. Also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant, the piece, performed by a circle of 100 or more performers wearing checked cloth around their waists, percussively chanting "cak", and throwing up their arms, depicts a battle from the Ramayana where monkeys help Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana. However, Kecak has roots in sanghyang, a trance-inducing exorcism dance."

Kecak Dance, Bali

You can see this at youtube:

At the end of the movie, one really does have the urge to go make something like it, but better, using all of the possibilities of film. Looks like "tedg" did have a good argument (see post on The Movies Begin 1), when he argued for a more imaginative kind of filmmaking than that to which we've grown accustomed. At least, it's possible to get a tangible sense of that, after watching Baraka, whatever it's flaws and virtues might be.

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