The Ever-Turning Wheel of Life
Filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson discuss Samsara, their world tour of mesmerizing images that force us to think about humanity and our relationship to the eternal
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Filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson have made a living traveling to the world’s most spectacular locations, gathering images of unsurpassed natural beauty and the human activity, both mundane and miraculous, amidst that beauty. Their latest film, Samsara, which debuts in the U.S. on August 24, is the culmination of the skills they’ve honed from previous acclaimed films like Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi. A non-verbal, guided meditation, Samsara explores the interconnectedness between humanity and our world in the continuous wheel of life from birth to rebirth. It’s a mesmerizing display of all the intriguing and disturbing realities we encounter—art and religion, meat factories and imprisonment—in that life cycle. The filmmakers spoke with Outside about their vision, world travel, and the power of flow.
Photo GalleryView a variety of scenes from the film Samsara.
“Samsara” means “continuous flow” or “ever-turning wheel of life.” How does that theme shape the film, and what does it mean to your vision?
Fricke: We loosely based it on this Buddhist concept of birth, death, and rebirth and followed this line of impermanence. We were looking at this sand painting mandala idea as a bookend to the film, to open and close the film.
Magidson: And that concept directs you to the research and the images that we’re looking for on location to capture everything that’s related to those broad themes.
You’ve said that your films are centered on the human relationship to the eternal. Yet Samsara contains so many images of striking natural beauty, or integration of humanity with natural beauty. Are you interested in humanity’s relationship to the natural world?
Magidson: Well, we all live here, and we all have that relationship. Everyone feels it a little differently, but I think those images are in there just to remind us of the planet we live on.
What have you learned about humanity and our world through encountering so many cultures in making this and your other films?
Fricke: This film is really based on the power of flow and interconnection. When that natural flow gets interrupted, I think that’s when you see the most alarming images—people in prison, animals in cages, walls that divide religions. But the film focuses on the relationship between animate and inanimate objects. Since we did it as a guided meditation, we would flow through these different concepts and try not to say too much about it being right or wrong, good or bad, but just stare down the middle.
How does the Samsara experience differ from your previous film together, Baraka?
Fricke: We went out armed with more technology and a fearlessness we had having already gone through this process with Baraka. It’s tough making a film without a screenplay or actors or dialogue, but we knew what we were in for and went for it. With Samsara, we really took it to a global scale.
Magidson: You just have to rely on the fact that you’re going to find the structure of the film in the editing process. We had a couple of structural elements like the sand paintings, but you’re going out realizing that you have to make this film work structurally in the editing process based on the reality of the imagery that you bring back. So that’s a little daunting, a little scary at times.
I imagine there were a lot of images that landed on the cutting room floor. How did you select the right images to convey intended meaning? How much of the film is shaped by your intentions, and how much is left for the viewers to interpret?
Fricke: The process of cutting the film was a real zen-like approach. We cut the whole film with no sound or music, into different subject blocks. We really didn’t know how those blocks were going to hook up until we had enough of them, and we started to see how the film formed, on the power of the flow of the images that we were consciously trying to show.
How important is the music to the overall product of the film?
Fricke: Fifty percent of this project was the images. The other 50 percent is the music, which is like the dialogue or the emotion of the film.
Magidson: We worked with some people we’ve worked with before—Michael Stearns and Lisa Gerrard—and their music really works for this kind of filming because it’s spacious, it’s not directive, and it has an openness and volume musically that allows viewers to bring their own inner dialogue to the experience of watching the film.
You traveled to something like 25 countries to film Samsara. Did you incorporate any outdoor adventures into your travels?
Magidson: We’re out there working. We’re out there so long, and it’s hard to be away from our families. We’re on a mission to get out there, get imagery, and come back, so that’s what we’re doing. We’re not taking any time off.
Travel isn’t part of the lure for this kind of filmmaking for you, then?
Fricke: The more locations we go to, the better the film works.
Magidson: The lure is finding the imagery.
What were your favorite locations for hunting imagery?
Fricke: The world’s just loaded with it.
Magidson: I think we did great in Ladakh. China worked out well for us. We got great material there.
Fricke: It’s the access you can get. Not everyone or every country says, Yes.
Magidson: That’s one of the things that made this a little harder than Baraka. It was harder to access specific locations than it was 20 years ago. We got a little more resistance. But we got some incredible access too.
Can you talk about some of the disturbing images that seem to clash with the traditionally beautiful ones?
Magidson: That’s one side of what we’re showing.
Fricke: I think those are the most powerful images because they interrupt that natural flow. When you see caged animals or people, or walls around religions—it’s all out there.
What do you hope viewers take from Samsara?
Fricke: I hope they come away with the feeling that they’re interconnected—there’s the good and the bad here, and we’re all part of it.