Walter Mencken 11:31 a.m., Feb. 1
Interview with Samsara producer Mark Magidson and director Ron Fricke
When I first tried to describe Samsara to my wife, I said, "Think of Life magazine in its heyday, the photographs opening up the wider world to the viewer. Except here, the pictures move, and so does the camera. So the images get revealed in new ways."
Later, I worried that this would seem like a backhanded compliment - who remembers Life magazine in its heyday? Who even knows what a heyday is? But if you were ever young and bored and poking around in your grandparents house, and found a stack of back issues of Life, and spent the next few hours lost in delight and wonder, well, at least you know what I mean. Also, you can probably understand why I was delighted to have an opportunity to speak with Samsara producer Mark Magidson and director Ron Fricke. (And even if you don't find yourself curious about a non-narrative portrait of the titular concept - birth-death-rebirth, universal interconnectedness, and temporal impermanence - all shot in stunning 70mm, you might find something to enjoy.)
[Full disclosure: I massaged some of my own text to give the piece a little more flow, but all of the quotes from Mr. Magidson and Mr. Fricke are verbatim.]
Matthew Lickona: I'd like to hear the story behind a shot and how it made it into the film. Does it start with an idea, or with an image, or what?
Mark Magidson: Well, the concept of the film, Samsara, is where we started our research. Then we were looking for imagery that fit that concept, and that also had a high level of visual interest. I guess the outstanding one would be the sand painting that we shot at the Thikse monastery on the outskirts of Ladakh in India. That was the key structural element, the one that provided the bookends for the film. We arranged for the monks to do the painting. As we understand it, they normally do them about five times a year - but they did this one for us. They do the painting [with the individual colored grains of sand,] and then they have a ritual where they wipe it away as a metaphor for impermanence. Once we got that, we felt pretty good about where we were for the film.
Matthew Lickona: Was it a difficult shot to get?
Mark Magidson: Not really. We made a donation to the monastery. That's typical of how films like this are made. You are compensating people for these kinds of moments and that kind of imagery. That's the way it should be, I think.
Matthew Lickona: What shots were difficult?
Ron Fricke: The shot of the sulfur miners in Indonesia was the most horrific location on this film, and I think on any other film we worked on. We were right down in the volcano where they were mining, and that vapor that you saw was sulfuric acid. When the wind changed, it got right in our eyes and down our throats, and we couldn't breathe or see. Those miners do that all day long; they make two trips down into the volcano and back, with no protection. We were gagging and stumbling around, just trying to shoot it.
Matthew Lickona: How did you pitch the people you wanted to film?
Mark Magidson: We have a little synopsis about the film. Also, a lot of people know about our previous film, Bakara. We were pretty surprised with how big that has become over the years. It made things a lot easier.
Matthew Lickona: You mention that the making and destruction of the sand painting was a key structural element. When I hear "structure," I think screenplay, and I notice that you are listed as co-writers. People might not think of a non-narrative film without dialogue as having writers in the typical sense.
Mark Magidson: Well, there's content, and there's themes, and there's kind of a rough structure. But really, it gets refined in the editing process. You make the film with the imagery you bring back. So there was an outline, but it was subject to change.
Matthew Lickona: Can you give an example?
Ron Fricke: It's like doing a painting - you're just very open to the process. But once we had the opening and closing of the film, we just cut the rest in silence, in these three- or four-minute subject blocks. Then we started arranging the blocks to find the flow between them. That's what we really concentrated on - showing how, through the power of flow, you could see that the people and the places and the planet are all interconnected.
Mark Magidson: There were sequences. There was organic imagery - meaning nature without people in it. There were manufacturing images, there were subway components... there are categories of material that you're researching, trying to locate specific places where you can go and gather that.
Ron Fricke: And after the edit, we found that the film sort of has a message of its own going - the kind of blurry boundary between animate and inanimate objects. There are dolls that replicate humans...
Matthew Lickona: ...and those faces that moved to the mechanical noises.
Ron Fricke: Yeah, it's like the robots are more human than the humans.
Mark Magidson: We actually had to add some of those mechanical noises, because no one was picking up on the fact that those faces were robots.
Matthew Lickona: Ah. And of course, some of your human faces stayed motionless for a long, long time. Some of those stares went on long enough to make me uncomfortable in my seat.
Ron Fricke: I like shots that are long. I miss them. Usually with films, it's cut, cut, cut, cut. The whole idea of the portraits was that they were set up on the King Tut death-mask in the beginning; his stare coming at you from eternity, you could say. We tried to make that a connection to all the other subjects we did portraits of - they're connected to that stare, that soul in all of us. It's like really good still photography; you get an essence of who is inside that skin.
Matthew Lickona: Speaking of the blurred line between man and machine, those factory shots from China were pretty striking. Was there any difficulty in getting access?
Ron Fricke: We tried here in the US, and we just got a, "No." Nobody wants you in their kitchen here. But China was, "Yes!" They wanted to show us how efficient and clean they were.
Matthew Lickona: The sequence with the fellow smearing clay on his face seemed more stagy than anything else in the film, at least to me. It stuck out.
Ron Fricke: We had a lot of performers in the film. He was a Frenchman, and his performance was all about the shadow side, the parts inside you that you don't want people to see. You could say that when the flow gets broken, the images become more intense, more powerful. There are a lot of those moments in the film - animals in cages, people in cages, walls around religions... Those break the natural flow, and I think that's why they stick out.
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