Baraka (Ron Fricke, 1992)

In its scant 90+ minute running time, “Baraka” manages to do what even the most heartfelt screenplay and reflective, reality-based work of fiction cannot: it shows us the world.  Well, obviously a 90 minute documentary/visual essay film showing random images of people and places in locales both modern and exotic is gonna show you the world, but “Baraka” does more than that.  In combining some of the most breathtaking moving images any movie could ask for (via a special widescreen technique that Ron Fricke designed specifically for this film) with innovative editing and a soundtrack about as incredible as the images, these images of the world combine to live and breathe.  We don’t just see every the world of “Baraka”, we feel it – we feel its history, its evolution (or de-evolution), its soul.  We’re shown similarities and differences between customs of those in the city and those in the wild, between mother nature in a junkyard and mother nature in the most awe-inspiring mountain/jungle regions in the world, between architecture of the ancient and architecture the modern, between behavior of humans and behavior of animals.  There’s a method to Ron Fricke’s madness, because when you pay attention to how these images are cobbled together, how one image is followed by another that’s at least somewhat similar in tone, shape, basic theme, or what have you, you’ll see that they’re not so random after all.

Consider these three images:

In the first, this monkey is regarded for at least a minute or two.  In any movie, let alone a plotless, dialogue-free essay film, a minute or two is an eternity, but the camera focuses on this monkey not a moment too long, and it’s all because of that face.  I’m not gonna claim to know what a monkey is a thinking, but what I do know is that it’s giving perhaps as much of a melancholy, contemplative, and knowing face as any human would.  You combine that with the haunting, meditative musical score of that particular scene early in the film, and all of a sudden this monkey in the water is carrying the weight of the Primate order and the entire natural world around it, and hell, it could be contemplating the starry, eclipse-containing cosmos as seen in the next few shots for all we know.  And then later, we come to this disturbing, ghost-white man as he slowly looks up and lets out an agonizing scream towards the heavens – except we don’t hear that scream.  In one of the most brilliant moments of an already brilliant soundtrack, that scream is replaced with the sounds of all the grotesqueries of modern society – car horns, alarms, engines, every aspect of today’s sound pollution.  Now granted, those two images come rather far apart in the film, but the connection is still there.  If that monkey is expressing deep rumination over how the world has changed, then the man turns that rumination into rage, into a head-on collision between nature of old and the technology of now.  

And the third image?  Well, I just thought it was really, really cool, and scared the hell out of me when this guy just popped up all of a sudden 😛 .

If there’s any ‘message’ to take out of “Baraka,” it revolves around that ever-changing world, that impact between old and new, antiquated and modern, spiritual and technological.  I mean, if this image doesn’t tell you that, I don’t know what does:

So much of “Baraka”‘s power comes not just in how breathtaking the images are, but in how they’re arranged and edited together, and how they’re related.  Consider this fascinating religious ritual:

The arrangement and choreography of this ceremony is remarkable – how fifty men know when to lie on their backs while fifty more simultaneously face them, arms waving, all moving in unison, and then the two groups switching on a dime, in perfect synchronicity.  The chanting is fast, lively, exciting, and in perfect harmony – a truly spiritual experience.  And then juxtapose that with a later fast-motion shot of a busy and crowded Grand Central Station.  Two busy images filled to the brim with motion in two completely different contexts.  I won’t just come out and say that the film blatantly sides itself with the more natural world, I’d like to think it’s more complex than that, but boy, that Grand Central Station scene seem a hell of a lot more artificial and robotic than the fluid and uniform, but infinitely more passionate, men in that religious ritual.

Comparisons of similarities/differences in other images are much more apparent, and the contrast between the old and new, ancient and modern, elegant and soulless are much easier to spot in other images, like so:

It’s not exactly subtle on Fricke’s part to show how the ancient pyramid of Giza that hasn’t been used for centuries is far more elegant and FAR less dilapidated and pathetic-looking than this horrendous housing complex that’s still used in the present, but it’s effective enough.  But it’s not all about image.  Lev Kuleshov taught us in the wee early years of cinema that the juxtaposition of one shot with another was vital to influencing the audience’s interpretation of those shots, but I think that “Baraka” proves that sound is now just as vital in influencing image interpretation.  The music during the fast-motion images of the city is lively but somehow artificial, contributing to those scenes’ hectic but robotic feel.  A later scene in an abandoned facility, maybe a hospital or prison, I wasn’t sure, features dank, grimy rooms and piles of skulls, juxtaposed with still images of forlorn faces – but it’s the sounds of sadness and agony within that scene that makes it truly frightening.  A montage at a junkyard and in various slums, and how the people there lead their desolate existence, is supplemented with some of the most woeful music you’ve ever heard, so as a result, the scene is woeful.  If the music in that montage were more lively, we’d see perseverance in these people instead of sorrow.  And later, when we see perhaps hundreds of men and women washing themselves on the shore, laughing and enjoying each others’ company, the music has an air of hope that makes the scene joyful.  If the music had been more introspective and solemn, as with the earlier scene of the monkey taking a similar bath, this scene of absolute joy would take on a much different tone.  The editing and use of sound in “Baraka” is as impeccable as the astonishingly beautiful images of mountains, trees, ruins both ancient and modern, animals, and man, and the combination of all of these go a long way in showing how every element, every organism both living and dead, of this planet has an unspoken connection, and just how similar, and how different, a monkey taking a bath and a person taking a bath can be.

90 minutes is rather short by ‘normal’ movie standards, but for a movie like “Baraka,” 90 minutes might be stretching it a bit long.  But even still, if you somehow zone out of “Baraka” for a minute or two, you’re still getting a hell of a lot out of it when you zone back in, simply because every single image is nothing short of breathtaking.  The downside of that, of course, is that you might miss just how all of these sights and sounds connect, how one face or one structure graphically match-cuts into another, just how connected one person or culture can be with another, despite being separated by thousands of miles or thousands of years.  Another essay film, Chris Marker’s “Sans soleil,” treaded similar ground, but didn’t gel with me primarily because of narration that I thought was dull at best, pretentious at worst.  “Baraka” gelled with me in every way that “Sans soleil” didn’t because there was no narration to tell me how immensely complex and awe-inspiring the world is.  I didn’t need to be told this – I could see it for myself.  It makes perfect sense that ‘a blessing, or the breath, or the essence of life from which the evolutionary process unfolds’ is just one of many, possibly infinite, definitions throughout so many languages of the word “Baraka,” because really as a word it’s as indescribable as the nature of the world that the movie it’s named after is portraying.  It’s an indescribable quality, encompassing every emotion, every mindset both sublime and forlorn – a quality we can just barely begin to comprehend when we look at so-called random images.  The slow descent of a tree, the sound of snapping bark like a final death wail, is like the downfall of a stately king.  A monk’s slow-motion ringing of a massive bell takes on the appearance of a Herculean effort to signal either the sad end of one era or the beginning of another.  In the span of a few minutes, we’re treated to sweeping images of things ranging from the ruins of a lost civilization to a flock of thousands of birds above an immense forest, sunrise over the Australian outback, a fog-covered canyon and mountain range, and an extreme close-up of a lizard’s head, and it’s all bookended first by an eclipse, and finally a starry night.  Just another ordinary day.


1 comment so far

  1. Ariel on

    yes, yes, yes.

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