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BARAKA (1992)



PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: pantheism, deep ecology

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR RON FRICKE: Koyaanisqatsi (1983 Cinematographer), Chronos (1985), Sacred Site (1986), Samsara (2006)

SYNOPSIS: Baraka, the Sufi term for “blessing”, is a nonverbal film with dramatic images of nature, religious ritual, oppressive city life, and war. The film, in the words of director Ron Fricke, is a journey of rediscovery and reconnecting. The dominant message is a mystical one: God is nature, big cities are unnatural, and we connect with nature through organic religious rituals. The movie was filmed during a 13 month period in 24 countries at over 150 locations. It was shot on 70 millimeter film which gives it especially high resolution (the normal film size for a feature-length movie is 35 millimeter). Baraka follows in the tradition of the groundbreaking nonverbal film Koyaanisqatsi (1983), directed Godfrey Reggio, of which Fricke was the cinematographer. Wearing the director’s hat this time, Fricke set out to make “The ultimate nonverbal film in the ultimate format,” as Baraka’s producer Mark Magidson puts it. While the film contains no narration or dialogue, it nonetheless contains a clear three-act story. Act 1 depicts scenes of natural wonder and religious rituals that blend together. In Act 2 the movie shifts direction as a Brazilian rainforest tree is chainsawed to the ground. An enormous strip mine scars the landscape. Cities progressively increase in size and take on a mechanical breathing sound. The result is overpopulation, mass production, factory farms, poverty, prostitution, war, and ultimately genocide. Act 3 is one of redemption. Civilizations ultimately collapse under their own weight, and people are purified by returning to nature and religious ritual. A gallery of images from Baraka is at this website: http://www.spiritofbaraka.com/baraka.aspx

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. The film begins in Nango Springs, Japan, with shots of a snow monkey sitting contemplatively in hot springs, suggesting a state of ideal harmony between conscious beings and nature. What in Fricke’s view does that state of harmony involve?

2. Early on in the film there is a series of slow motion scenes at temples and sacred sites around the world. The religious rituals and sacred art are complex and dramatic. What does this have to do with nature?

3. Fricke includes the Indonesian monkey chant, called “kecak”, in which participants sway, shake their arms and repeat the word “kecak”. The chant is not of religious origin and was actually created in 1930 in Bali to entertain tourists. It tells the Hindu story from the Ramayana of how Rama was assisted by a white monkey army to rescue his kidnapped wife. The hypnotic chant is sometimes performed in the United States, where some participants begin speaking in tongues. One college-aged participant said the following: “I loved it. I felt so close to everyone. I'm usually conservative and skeptical, but the energy was so welcoming that we weren't afraid to come together.” Fricke may have been unaware that the monkey chant was originally a creation for the tourist industry and was thus not an organic religious ritual. In hindsight, does the monkey chant belong in the film?

4. Frick includes images of an active volcano, waterfalls, churning clouds in fast motion, and time lapse movements of stars across the sky. What’s the message?

5. Frick includes images of natural wonders, such as natural bridges that have been sculpted by water. Ayer’s Rock in Australia is streaked with erosion. What’s the message?

6. The movie has recurring images of ritual body art: stretched ear lobes, tattoos, face paintings, head dresses. What’s the message?

7. The film takes on a more ominous tone showing people living in apartments that are like small boxes stacked upon one another; and even cemeteries have crypts stacked several rows high. One scene shows Japanese capsule hotels that are like stacked coffins that hold a single occupant. What’s so bad about living in a box?

8. The film juxtaposes a low-tech Cigarette Factory in Indonesia with a high-tech Electronics assembly line where workers wear face masks. What’s being compared and contrasted?

9. One scene juxtaposes the full body tattoos of a Japanese Yakuza gang with the tattoos of children from the Brazilian Yanomami Tribe. What’s being compared and contrasted?

10. Fast motion street scenes seem dehumanizing since individual people are lost within the larger patterns of car and pedestrian movement. Suppose, though, that religious rituals were filmed in fast motion; they’d appear the same way. What’s the difference?

11. The movie depicts factory farms: assembly-line Food production: eggs, chicken debeaking, and discarded chicks that slide down the big funnel. What’s the message?

12. One downside of big cities and overpopulation is rampant poverty: children living on the street begging for handouts, and foraging through garbage dumps. How would a more natural society prevent this?

13. As society moves further away from nature the end result is widespread war and genocide. How would a more natural society prevent this?

14. The film depicts modern Chinese communist soldiers guarding Tiananmen Square, and then shifts to pictures of the ancient Chinese Taracotta Army statues. What’s the point of comparison?

15. The film moves towards its redemptive theme with the depiction of the ancient city of Angkor in Cambodia, which is overgrown with enormous tree roots. What’s the message?

16. The film shows Hindu religious practices that center on the Ganges river, such as ritual bathing and funeral pyres. How is this redemptive, and what is it redeeming us from?

17. The film shows several religious rituals that involve fluid motion: the ritual hopping of Kenyan tribespeople, whirling dervishes of Islam’s Sufi sect, Orthodox Jews bobbing at the Wailing Wall, Muslim pilgrims circling the Kabah in Mecca. What’s the message?

18. The film closes with visual comparisons between the ruins of temples and natural rock formations. What’s the point of comparison?

REVIEWS

Baraka was a movie what had no verbal description, with this in mind the movie does allow the watcher to question and make their own judgments of what the meaning of the movie was to them. I particularly enjoyed seeing the different scenes and pictures of technology in contrast with nature, how nature is in constant rival with man and technology. I was impressed with the work and purpose the director strived for completing the picture. The contrast of human traits with nature was informative as well; the question of the fast moving traffic and people to me has contrast to the insects moving alone the tree in an orderly movement. The two separate incidents in the movie of three individuals standing together may have some importance, I am not sure what but I think their must be something or they would not been there. The jungle people making their monkey chant was go to be placed in the movie, it can be compared to people that follow a religion merely through the meaningless rituals they practice. -- Ubermensch

This was another of the more enjoyable movies I watched. Personally, the crisp graphics and exotic scenery were the biggest aspects of the movie. But it was certainly deep with philosophical content. The religious scenes, most notably the kekak dance and the temple shots remind me of religious issues, cultural relativism and those sorts of arguments. The nature scenes focus on the power of nature, one example being the huge gusts of winds blowing across the desert mesa. The scenes of robotic people, assembly line workers, and de-humanizing scenery combined with monotonous “tick tock” music really gives way to philosophical questions such as “am I a robot?.” It also brings up the questions of society, like how trivial things such as working and walking show how desensitized and unaware of our lives we really are. The big sky scrapers along with the impoverished families also contrast with the big city lives of rich and famous to the smaller societies clambering to stay alive. It is all resolved, supposedly, by returning to nature. By getting in touch with nature, bathing in her waters, it’s almost like experiencing a Christian baptism. I certainly found all these issues quite interesting. It actually made me feel quite small compared to the world, and useless, in accordance with the problems it faces. It made me realize the powers that lie in nature, and the expansiveness of our world. – The Apostate

The most engaging and persuasive movie assigned for viewing in Philosophy 490 was undoubtedly Baraka. Offering more philosophical and persuasive content than many of its more voluble counterparts, the film raised a host of pertinent questions with its video collage technique. While many will view the movie as a non-verbal argument for the philosophical movement known as deep ecology, those not well-versed in Eastern strands of thought will also be provoked into a genuine ethical introspection. The movie’s chief question is "what is westernization doing to the world?" Ron Fricke masterfully portrays this modernization by making the images faster-paced and the music more complex as the scenes shift from more natural lifestyles to more technologically advanced ones. Concomitant to modernization is a variety of social evils. The movie displays these in a set order, implying a pattern: poverty, prostitution, predation, and putrefaction. This pattern utilizes some of the more haunting images of the movie, including collections of bones remaining from the Holocaust. A controlling metaphor marks Baraka’s coverage of industrialization. Throughout this section, the film flashes to clips from an industrial farm. Freshly hatched chicks are pushed through a system of examinations and vaccinations. At one stop along this process, the mouths of the chicks are branded. Fricke alternates these scenes with shots of crowded and active city streets. The implications are clear. Humans have as much value in westernized societies as the chicks do to the industrial farm. Similarly, as the workers of the industrial farm care little for the chicks and push them through processing as quickly as possible, westernized countries care little about their citizens and simply seek to push them through life. While I was not compelled by the solution Baraka offers—i.e., a return to simplistic, natural, and unindustrialized living—my eyes were further opened to the ethical evils of westernization. -- Shifty

I find Baraka to have a great lack of direction and insight in relation to philosophical content. The lack of narration has much to do with this privation. One is open to as much insight and is given an equal amount of direction when one goes to the liquor store for a necessary compliment to this film or when one sees a glowing inferno after setting fire to a copy of Baraka in the midst of feeling a moral obligation to do so. The film leads the viewer to notice the aesthetic value of the world and not so much a relation with pantheism. While I feel that theism (not necessarily pantheism) and the beauty of nature are related, I do not feel the need to combine the attributes of God and the wonders of nature. I feel this is an inference that cannot be made and is certainly not one that is made sufficiently. With a lack of direction, I feel a case could be made for many philosophical topics without any of these topics being the intention the director. With this being stated, a person who has not been exposed to philosophical topics has no idea of any philosophical significance throughout the film. This person would merely be impressed with the cameraman's abilities to capture some breathtaking sights throughout the world. -- Sleepy Town

“Baraka” was a good movie yet I personally believe that by reading the synopsis before the movie really helps understand what the movie was trying to express through the synopsis. I really like how the movie was able to express such a complex idea with out conversation in such a way that a person could actually take in the full effect of the message of Gods presence in everything from an eastern theodicy. I think it was really eye opening like “The Corporation”. I think that all together it shows a naturalistic perspective of our existence. -- Downwardly Mobile

Talk about a good way to piss me off. If there was philosophical content to this movie, I lost it somewhere between the directors self absorption and Phillip Glass licking an electric keyboard. Seriously, was there a point to be had besides “Nature/Religion good, Science/Technology bad!!”? Some people might say that it’s very “American” to criticize this film, but I feel as though the film itself was very American, which is to say that it presented a very colorful show and made some very strong accusations, but did so on very loose footing and can never, ever be held accountable for them. Let me tell you a thing or two about nature. It has SNAKES in it. And MALARIA. And RABIES. And what’s the great white devil of technology brought us lately? Asprin. Antibiotics. The information super highway. Air conditioning. Big guns to kill rabid, malaria infested snakes. I wonder if the director actually stuck around and checked out the amazing advances the naturalist religions he’s so fond of have made in recent years, like female genital mutilation, throwing acid in the faces of rape victims, and just generally killing the hell out of each other whenever they get the chance. You don’t get to build gigantic, beautiful, gemstone encrusted temples by being fair and kind to people. You do it by starving your followers and enemies until you’ve got enough money or slave labor to build something like that. I’m not afraid to look too American by saying that there was no solid message behind this movie. The simple life that the director seems to be promoting is one where women are baby crapping property, and people die of old age at thirty. -- Reviewer from Hell

What the deuce was that?! . -- Frezno Smooth

 
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