Baraka: The Film with No Words

27 Nov

By Nick Beckman

Twenty years after its theatrical release, the non-narrative film about life on earth and the essence of spirituality has finally gained a sequel, drawing new and old audiences to sit still and watch beautifully edited 70 mm footage. Baraka (1992) and Samsara (2012) are films meant to entertain viewers visually, as well as providing them with an excitingly epic score, without directing them via text or voice-overs.

Baraka begins with a shot of a mountain pass. After a few seconds of stillness there is a slight movement in the bottom right hand corner; an eagle swooping down and out. Not only does this put into perspective the shear greatness of this mountain, but also how far away the cameraman is to be able to get such a shot. The next scene is a pan from a snowy landscape down into a hot spring being enjoyed by a red-faced baboon.

The primate is hauntingly human. As he raises his eyebrows and peers around at his surrounding, you seem to know exactly what he’s thinking: “Damn, this hot spring feels really good.” Just as the baboon appears to have realized something, the scene cuts to a time lapse of the night sky. Then, back to the monkey who appears to shrug off the previous idea he had conceived. His eyes then slowly fall and the heat of the spring causes the look of concern on his face to fade away.

Calling this film non-narrative is only slightly correct. While no words or text are there to guide you along with the story line, certain cuts are designed to make you feel a certain way or think a certain thought. You wonder if the baboon really understands his own existence or, frankly, if he even cares. After all, he is a monkey in a hot spring…life couldn’t get much better at that point.

Director Ron Fricke (Koyaanisquatsi) has been a professional cinematographer since 1982 and knows how to speak with his audiences without saying a word. While some of his earlier works involved much more narrative, it wasn’t always necessary. There is something about the way he portrays human life and earth-made structures that lead you to believe that you have actually been there yourself. Though, I would argue even if you did see it yourself, it would hardly compare to the swooping helicopter shots Fricke allows you to experience.He is temporarily placing you, the viewer, in his mind and allowing you to see the world, un-biased and completely natural, through his eyes.

And even though Baraka is celebrating its 20th birthday this year, it is no less significant for filmmaking than it was at the time of its conception. Even in fictional films, cinematography and the art of visually communicating to your audience with pictures rather than the words being spoken, is a subtlety that mustn’t be forgotten in the craft.