Baraka is not about believing. It’s not about understanding or accepting. It’s about seeing, and observing the world that we live in, and ultimately knowing that the parameters of Earth are far wider than any of us would ever have imagined. How many of us are aware of Indonesian congregations that gather together to perform the Kecak, or Monkey Chant? Or of the intricate body markings of the Kayapo tribe? Or of the Whirling Dervishes and how there is visual beauty in the way they meditate? Not many, I’m sure. And so Baraka, more than anything, is an eye opener, and it opens our eyes in the most magnificent fashion.
The film is a documentary, but it has no narrative, no narration, no interviews. It exists to reveal the wonders of the world through slow tracks, time lapse, aerial shots, activities, chants, prayers, ceremonies, the working life, poverty, nature, destruction, commercialism, inner peace, technology, history, civilization, and I could go on and on. It’s a 90 minute film, but it seems to last a lifetime. Director Ron Fricke knows what he wants to achieve, and so he builds Baraka like a visual encyclopedia that ambles along, allowing each shot to draw our breath before moving in with the next. Many times, the next shot is breathtaking.
Take for example the scene of a Japanese public bath. We see three men soaking in hot water. Who are they? One of them stands up, backing the camera, his back covered in tattoos. For the familiar, you’ll know at once that he is a member of the Yakuza. He washes his back. Fricke moves in for a close up of his tattoos. There is a cultural undertone here, just as there is in the next shot of a young Kayapo tribesman in Brazil, whose body is also covered in tattoos and markings. But it’s different. The context has changed. In one cut, we have travelled across the globe, back in time, gotten younger, and are now viewing body art from a different perspective. And that’s how Fricke structures his entire film: he shifts perspective.
Take this other example. The current theme is labour. We are shown a cigarette factory in Indonesia as hundreds upon hundreds of female workers tirelessly — and very professionally — assemble thousands upon thousands of cigarettes. We feel for them. Is their labour cheap? Probably. And then the movie enters the theme of commercialism and the urban working life. We are shown countless people zipping from one point to another in fast motion in New York and Tokyo. They look like busy bees. Fricke cuts back to the cigarette factory. Everyone is now sped up, and with it, the meaning has changed. We’re no longer looking at these women as labourers; we’re looking at them as cogs in a giant machine, without identity, without purpose. Just working around the clock to make profit (which most probably won’t go to them). Again, change in perspective.
Baraka is an excellent film. It takes us on a journey of the soul, and I couldn’t help but feel like its imagery, coupled with its hypnotic score, made it seem like a hymn, an ode to the workings of this world. There is serenity in Fricke’s carefully choreographed shots, and he lets them linger, sometimes comfortably, sometimes uncomfortably. There are disturbing shots of trees being cut down, and of chicks in a chicken farm being tossed like packets of chips, and of oil fires in Kuwait that rise up into the smokey sky. These are not pleasant events, yet they are present. Fricke is not making a statement; he is simply showing. It is up to us to decide how we want to respond to them. For me, I’d rather not have seen the felled tree, or the manhandled chicks.
I said earlier that the movie has no narrative. It has no narrative in the traditional sense. There is no hero, no villain, no conflict, no dialogue and no trajectory. But there are narratives within its many chapters, and I like that. There’s a shot of a Japanese man falling asleep on the train just after we’ve seen the busy human bees flooding buildings and the streets, and it becomes clear that his sleepiness signifies the tediousness of urban life.
And then there are times when there is really no narrative, like the scenes at Auschwitz and Tuol Sleng, which are haunting visuals of the human race’s dark past. The images are bone-chilling. But one of the most poignant parts of the film actually doesn’t know it’s being poignant (not for another nine years anyway), and that’s the scenes inside the World Trade Centre. I’ve never seen its interior before, and now that I have — some 11 and a half years after its collapse — I feel like a part of history has been lost forever.
I could really go on and on about Baraka, telling you how stunning it is, or how enlightening its images are, but there really is no point in doing so. I’ve told you enough about its wonders. Now go and watch it for yourself, and see what this world has to offer. The beautiful and the not-so-beautiful. The natural and the unnatural. The good and the bad.
Best Moment | Pretty much every single shot.
Worst Moment | Yeah you’ve guessed it. The tree being cut down, or the ill-treated chicks. Those two scenes bothered me more than all the shots of the filthy Ganges combined.