BIFF 12 - Closing Gala: Samsara - Cinema Review

'Fricke seems to flicker into storytelling life at points throughout, seemingly aware that there might be something here to tell, rather than purely show.'

Taken in the context of when and where it was screening, Samsara was, if not an excellent film, then at least an excellent choice of film. Programmed as the Closing Gala at the end of Bradford's Widescreen Weekend, Ron Fricke's non-narrative opus shows the potential of 8K widescreen cinema, this having been filmed on 70mm Panavision, scanned at high resolution and projected perfectly in The National Media Museum's Pictureville cinema. It was a fitting way to celebrate a festival that makes a big deal of large format cinema and shows a great amount of pride in its expert projection team, much to the shame of the multiplexes, currently scything through their own.

Fricke's film itself is everything you would expect from a piece of non-narrative cinema, filmed over five years, in twenty-five countries. It is big and bold, capturing visual treats which, by and large, most people's eyes will never have the chance to see. There's a distinctly human focus - whenever We are not present, there seems to be a depiction of us not too far away; statues, artistry, etc. - which places Fricke's work well within the annals of anthropology, although small detours in to pure nature are welcome too. Artistically, the film is a marvel, blending time-lapse photography, slow motion, 7.1 surround sound and the incredible resolution of the scanned film stock.

The problem with all this is that, as a piece of non-narrative cinema, Samsara is open to accusations of being an art exhibit. Fricke seems to flicker into storytelling life at points throughout, seemingly aware that there might be something here to tell, rather than purely show. A visit to a company that manufactures sex dolls, for example, is followed by a trip to a Thai ladyboy bar, where wearing clothes seems optional. A diversion to the funeral of a man being buried in a gun-shaped coffin then takes us inside a munitions factory, and then on to an American family with a large arms collection. These elements weaken the argument that Samsara can stand up without a narrative; Fricke obviously doesn't think so, or his thematic links between the imagery captured would be even more obtuse.

Despite this, it is unfair to say that the film will not win anyone over who already has preconceptions about the non-narrative format. If any film will then this is it. With some effort, you can let it absorb you like it so clearly wants to and the running time - under two hours - is perfectly judged to make this happen. Fricke's camerawork is superb and his location choices largely spectacular. At best, this is a document both of where humanity is at and where cinematic standards are heading, although it could perhaps have taken a page from Kevin Macdonald's Life In A Day, and imposed some sort of structure to help it along.

The 18th Bradford International Film Festival runs from 19th - 29th April at The National Media Museum and several satellite venues in and around Bradford. It includes a European Features competition, the Shine Short Film Award and several major UK premieres and retrospectives.


  1. I'm anxious to see this as the only thing from Fricke I've seen is the work he did in Koyannisqatsi. An incredible film.

    1. I haven't seen that but have read about it and yes, I'm sure if you enjoyed that, you will really love this.