I saw the last half hour or so of "Baraka" a long time ago, and I couldn't figure out what it was supposed to be. There were all these images of concentration camps, a funeral on the Ganges river, Whirling Dervishes, ancient stone images, beautiful landscapes, and starry night skies. I couldn't piece together any kind of narrative, but I kept trying to. What was it all about? What did it all mean? A decade later I finally saw the whole movie, and found some answers.
"Baraka" is categorized as both a documentary and an experimental film, following in the footsteps of the more celebrated "Koyaanisqatsi." Ron Fricke, who was the cinematographer on "Koyaanisqatsi," directed "Baraka," bringing a somewhat different sensibility. The film is best described as a collage of images exploring the natural world and human society. There is no story, at least none that is made explicit. Instead, the film looks at a variety of subjects across multiple cultures, such as religious rituals and industrialization. Like "Koyaanisqatsi," the modern world is viewed negatively, as a source of corruption, pollution, and squalor, but it doesn't dwell on this for very long. Critique is not the central concern of "Baraka." Its gaze is wider, and it spends far more time finding connections between different cultures, cutting from one part of the world to another, architecture in one country of the world echoing that of a different city, the ceremonies of one religion blending into other. Sometimes the viewer won't even notice that the film has moved on from one place to the next. In total, the filmmakers collected their images from 24 countries, across six continents.
Spirituality and common humanity are the major themes here. "Baraka" means "blessing" in Arabic, and some of the earliest images we see include calls to prayer, women reverently kissing a lock, and monks at a Tibetan monastery. There is no identifying information and no context for any of these images. The film requires the audience to recognize and make sense of what they see with little help from the filmmakers. Here are a group of children dressed in colorful tribal costume. Here are people decorating a temple. Here are a group of men in long robes and tall hats being solemnly blessed. And then they begin to dance, and you realize that these are the famous Whirling Dervishes of Turkey. In the modern world segments, shots of crowded subway platforms are intercut with shots of newly hatched chicks being processed and marked, and it's left to the viewer to catch the connecting ideas of mechanization and dehumanization.
The major selling point of "Baraka" is the cinematography, which is absolutely stunning. Throughout, I kept thinking of Tarsem Singh's fantasy film, "The Fall," which also went globetrotting to many different locales in order to find the most beautiful shooting locations that it could. However, "Baraka" has more impact because of the documentary approach. I'm sure there was still some staging for some of the shots we see in the film, but the images feel far more genuine, more candid and spontaneous. The camera is less intrusive, and there is the sense that we are simply watching as real-world events unfold. This is not to suggest that the film is lacking a point of view, because it's not. The inclusion and juxtaposition of certain elements is very deliberate, particularly the later segments of the film that travel to various concentration camps and Khmer Rouge prisons, lingering on photographs and piles of skulls.
However, I found that the images of nature were the most arresting. It's one thing to see lovely shots of waterfalls and desert landscapes and rock formations, but it's quite another to see them in this kind of quality, set to the hypnotic score by Michael Stearns, as part of the larger whole of "Baraka." The film has this wonderful immersiveness, which I think is due to the total lack of dialogue or any artifice we expect from other films, including the usual nature documentaries. "Baraka" is really a silent film, one that derives so much of its effectiveness from some of the oldest montage techniques, and lacks the distraction of modern movie soundscapes. We just have image after image of marvelous things to look at. And soon you get caught up in the rhythm of the editing, which is deceptively languid in the early going, and it's hard to look away from the screen.
There is a common what-if question that tends to come up in movie nerd discussions. If you met someone who had never seen a movie before, what would you show them first? I think I would pick "Baraka," because it shows what the cinematic medium is capable of, and because it provides such a fascinating look at a world it's easy to forget is all real.