Documentary Classics: Breathtaking ‘Baraka’ Turns 20 as ‘Samsara’ Goes Wide

By  · Published on September 15th, 2012

Because so many great films have their world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s not surprising to see a lot of documentaries celebrate anniversaries around this time. For instance, Ron Fricke’s Baraka turns 20 years old today, having debuted at TIFF back on September 15, 1992, when the event was still known as the “Festival of Festivals.”

It’s a special time to celebrate the non-narrative, non-verbal masterpiece, and not just because Fricke’s follow-up (he doesn’t consider it a sequel), Samsara, is currently wowing audiences around the country in a just-expanded theatrical release. Thanks to a fashionable interest in 70mm exhibition right now, Baraka (the first movie in twenty years shot in the Todd-AO 70mm format) also just finished up a week-long re-release at the Alamo Drafthouse and has screened recently in other cities in the format, as well.

If you missed or are unable to see Baraka on the big screen, though, the film’s Blu-ray is a more than acceptable substitute. It was on FSR’s list of the 15 must-own discs of 2008, where it was called “the best Blu-ray transfer, ever.” That status possibly remains unchallenged. Fricke and producer Mark Magidson are perfectionists when it comes to digitally scanning their works. They even recommend seeing Samsara projected digitally as opposed to on celluloid, despite the fact that the new film was also shot in 70mm.

I don’t know the technical magic behind it all. What I do know is the doc looks magnificent and fresh even after two decades. It’s hard to believe Baraka was made way back when something like The Panama Deception, with its cheap-looking videography and wipe edits, would win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature (Baraka wasn’t even nominated). Now that Michael Moore is trying to get the Academy to recognize a distinction for nonfiction films produced primarily for theatrical release (as opposed to television), it’s docs like Baraka and Samsara that ought to be honored.

Of course, films like this aren’t always considered documentary films in the same way as informative works like The Panama Deception. The more well-known Koyaanisqatsi, which is where Fricke got his start while serving as cinematographer and co-editor under director/producer Godfrey Reggio, also wasn’t recognized by the Academy in 1984 (they went instead with Dirty Dancing director Emile Ardolino’s nonfiction family film He Makes Me Feel Like Dancing’ – which I haven’t seen, if only because it’s only available via out-of-print VHS that looks like this).

In spite of these films’ spectacular visuals and cinematic majesty, they can often be criticized for not being about anything. The only exposition we get from Baraka, for instance, is through the film’s title, which means “blessing.” Fricke and Magidson do not even intend a meaning in the montage. They want us to get a feeling rather than a message. “The goal of the ?lm was to reach past language, nationality, religion and politics and speak to the inner viewer,” Magidson is quoted as saying on the film’s website.

There is a theme, however. Appropriate to the title, we’re shown a lot of religious scenes, including moments of prayer and settings such as Mecca’s Masjid al-Haram in Mecca (aka the Grand Mosque, which also appears in Samsara). But then there’s also religious tragedy and destruction, in the form of concentration camps and ruins, as well as a broader, universal spiritual and sacred atmosphere.

Baraka, like others of its kind, also deals a lot with nature and its infringement by man and urban spaces, so many viewers project an environmentalism element onto them. The genre’s trademark slow motion and time-lapse techniques imply the senses of change and fleeting time and emphasize both progress and decay. Yes, it shows us a world worth saving, but it also shows us a world in constant, customary flux. And looking at Baraka on its 20th anniversary reminds us of how cinema preserves at least an image of what the world looked like at a given point in time.

While it is not necessary to see Baraka before going out to see Samsara on the big screen (if you wait to watch it on your iPad, you’ll be sorry), there is a definite relationship between the two. In addition to the Grand Mosque, other locations from the earlier film (which was shot in 25 countries) were revisited for the follow-up, but even just in general we see what a difference the planet and its people are, two decades later.

I’m actually more fascinated by Baraka right now, because while most documentaries (the informative variety) are very much for their moment, these are more like time capsules for viewers to enjoy for eons to come. As much as the visuals of Samsara are just as mesmerizing, much of the content we see is familiar today. One of the best things about Koyaanisqatsi is how it takes us back to the 1970s and early 1980s, and similarly Baraka is fun for showing us a view of the past. Fans of the genre often focus fondly on the landscape bits, but the portraits of people are just as noteworthy.

Also worth noting is that Fricke and Magidson’s first film together, Chronos, was just re-released to Blu-ray this month. The 42-minute doc, which the director went on to make rather than continue collaborating with Reggio on the rest of the “Qatsi” trilogy (1988’s Powaqqatsi and 2002’s Naqoyqatsi), was originally produced for IMAX theaters in 1985. If you wonder why they didn’t go with the same format and exhibitor for Baraka, the duo told me recently that at the time IMAX was frustrating for a number of reasons, including limited running time, limited amount of screens and the attention to scientific subject matter.

Interestingly enough, as the following trailer shows, Baraka must have been released or re-issued on IMAX screens at some point.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.