Ron Fricke came to prominence as the cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1983), an innovative piece of cinema that was able to convey its environmental warning message through the power of images, music and editing alone. Much of the power of the striking imagery, from the landscapes of Monument Valley to the symphony of life in the big cities, was down to Ron Fricke’s innovation and experimentation with the camera, using time-lapse photography and unusual angles to show familiar settings in a new and different way, forcing the viewer to reconsider their place in a world out of balance with nature.
Fricke would take his approach to cinematography one step further with his own debut feature Chronos (1985), taking in a view of the world beyond Koyaanisqatsi’s North American confines and building a custom IMAX camera in order to do justice to some of the most famous places of natural and man-made beauty in the world on 70mm film stock. Visually impressive, Chronos was however constrained by the bulkiness of the IMAX camera and, the length of expensive film stock he could shoot, and the film consequently had none of the narrative flow or deeper meaning of his earlier work with Godfrey Reggio. Fricke would find the perfect balance between image and content in his most ambitious project Baraka (1992), travelling around the world to find some of the most impressive locations in the world and finding an underlying global connection behind them - people.
One of the most notable aspects of Fricke’s work on Koyaanisqatsi was his sensitive portraiture of people in relation to their environments and careers, and it’s a return of the focus from monuments and landscapes of Chronos to the people who live in them that provides Baraka with a meaningful subject to explore. The stunning photography is still there, dramatically capturing full solar eclipses, dramatic waterfalls, the heights of Mount Everest and the dark depths of smoking volcanoes, but more than just being wonderful images of nature, there is consideration of the deeper power that these forces represent for the people who live in these places, their ability to give live but also bring death. ‘Baraka’ is a word of Sufi origin that means ‘blessing’ or ‘breath of life’ in a number of languages, and in his film Fricke shows the people who live in these dramatic environments all over the world – from Ayers Rock in Australia to the Ganges in India – and shows the close spiritual relationship that exists between them. The film explodes with colour, life and energy in such exotic places, showing indigenous and aboriginal tribes performing age-old rituals and dances, but it also finds time for prayer and contemplation in the temples of Tibet, Angkor Wat and in many of the religious capitals of the world, finding a commonality and unity in the diversity of beliefs by showing them in relation to one another, to the world around them and the world beyond them.
It’s the world beyond that is evidently the most difficult subject for any natural world documentary filmmaker to capture, and Fricke inevitably struggles, attempting to find it in a number of different approaches, seeking to find a spiritual dimension in shots of the moon and the stars in the heavens above, as well as in the performance of funeral rites and ceremonies, even showing an actual cremation at Varanasi. Impressively photographed and scored with Michael Stearn’s New Age-sounding waves of synths, it doesn’t however manage to make the deep personal connection with the viewer her that it perhaps should. Taking it further by appealing to the viewer’s conscience through images of Auschwitz and the Killing Fields on the other hand seem a step too far. Photographs of the victims, piles of discarded shoes preserved in a concentration camp, walls of skulls and implements of torture in a Cambodian prison cell all feel somewhat out of place in the wider context of the film and its perfectly photographed images of natural beauty elsewhere. But in a film that is attempting to show the nature of people and their beliefs in the context of their environment, they are appropriate, even if they represent the darker side of human nature.
And ultimately it’s in the photography of people, in how they live across the world, in their celebration of tradition and belief as well as in their misery of their condition that Baraka ultimately convinces. Getting out on the streets of São Paolo, showing people going about their everyday labour in third-world Asian sweatshops and scavenging to live off rubbish tips that proves vital to the balance and context of Baraka, making it more than just an IMAX presentation of the great wonders of the natural world or a New Age meditation on spirituality. And, as with Koyaanisqatsi, the most moving moments come in Fricke’s portraiture, showing these people in their natural environments, looking directly into the camera, while the camera delves deep into their souls. More than in the imagery or Michael Stearn’s musical accompaniment, it’s in the editing then that the film is made - in the blending and juxtaposition of such images, showing the beauty and the horror of the world, its richness and diversity as well as its poverty traps and misery and showing that beneath it all, there are human beings involved. While it presents no overt narrative, environmental message or warning about globalisation, the viewer will find it hard not to draw connections between the images and reach conclusions of their own.
Baraka is released on Blu-ray in the UK by Second Sight. The film is presented on BD50 disc with a 1080p encode. The Blu-ray disc is coded for region B only.
The technical specifications for the High Definition transfer for Baraka are most impressive. The restored image for the transfer was painstakingly scanned at a resolution of 8K from the original 65mm negative, meaning that quite simply this is about the highest quality you can find on a Blu-ray release anywhere in the world. This is state-of-the-art home theatre viewing and you can’t half tell. When I first reviewed Baraka in Standard Definition DVD seven years ago, it looked and sounded about as good as you could imagine home cinema ever being, but looking back at the old disc now, it looks like a colour photocopy in comparison to the close-to-life fidelity of the new restored HD transfer. The amount of detail visible here is remarkable, with colours showing a range of fine tones, detail and texture throughout, but particularly in skin tones. There is no noticeable grain visible and apart from a faint telecine flicker in one or two short sequences, stability is superb, any image capable of being freeze-framed to show exactly how sharp and detailed it is, how brilliantly defined the colours and tones. This is a film moreover that is photographed to show its subjects in the most impressive light and the results are nothing less than breathtaking. Truly, what you have here is perfect High Definition home-theatre demo material.
Unfortunately, I can’t post any grabs from the image here to show the difference. All the images shown in this review come from the old 2001 SD DVD, so they are in no way representative of the actual HD image.
Coming in a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, the audio options fully lives up to the visual power of the film. Even without HD-audio capability, the viewer will be able to take advantage of the high quality 'Core' DTS Surround 1.5mbps track embedded within the DTS-HD Master Audio mix. Primarily the soundtrack is made up of Michael Stearn’s music score with comes across with all the luxurious warmth you would expect, successfully supporting the visual requirements of the film at key points – although the most strikingly scored scene in the film is undoubtedly the scenes of human misery set to ‘The Host of Seraphim’ by Dead Can Dance. The soundtrack manages to pack a significant punch also during scenes of tribal rhythms and chants, and even some deep low-frequency rumbles on occasion. Sound distribution is excellent, making this a fully immersive experience.
The is no dialogue in the film at all, so no subtitles are required. Extra features however are not subtitled either.
To match the effort put into the film’s presentation, there’s no short-changing on the extra features either. The main extra is a new 76 minute Making Of feature Baraka: A Closer Look (1.16:23), also presented in widescreen HD. Ron Fricke provides all the background to the film, from his early non-verbal cinema with Godfrey Reggio on Koyaanisqatsi, his experimental camera work on Chronos and his intentions for Baraka. With comments from nearly all the main participants on the film, there is thorough coverage of the issues involved in planning and scheduling shots, getting to locations and getting filming permits, with anecdotes and behind-the-scenes footage of how many of the shots were taken, the happy accidents that occurred, the near-missed avoided and the ones that got away. A short Restoration (7:04) featurette goes into the technical details and challenges involved in restoring and frame-by-frame scanning of the film into a Digital High Definition transfer. At 13 seconds per frame at 8K, it took three weeks to scan to produce what is claimed to be almost certainly the highest quality DVD ever made.
If you’re looking for a demo disc for your new HD set-up that will show the capabilities of the format in the best possible light, this is the disc you are looking for, but Baraka is so much more than that. It’s also a film that shows the world that we are all a part of in an entirely new light, showing its wonder, its diversity and its misery as well as attempting to touch on its spiritual dimension. Brilliantly edited and sympathetically scored, Ron Fricke’s remarkable cinematography presents a rich tapestry of evocative imagery that manages to touch the reach the viewer on a deeper level – particularly when it is presented to such a high standard in High Definition. This is quite an experience.