The word Baraka is of Sufi origin and means ‘blessing’ or ‘breath of life’ in a number of languages. Ron Fricke, as writer, director and cinematographer, uses this concept for this film with scene after scene of sumptuous images of sheer natural beauty. There are time-lapse shots of clouds billowing over mountains (an image that still astonishes, however many times it has been done), and aerial shots of volcanoes and waterfalls and ancient Tibetan temples. Shot in Todd-AO 70mm with a full surround-sound score of ethnic beats and rhythms, Baraka is almost like a home Imax experience, but one that has a deeper message to convey than the standard National Geographic feature or New Age experience.
The film doesn’t concentrate solely on beautiful images of nature or the wonders of the animal kingdom, nor is it simply a case of pointing the camera at the beautiful scenery and waiting for the right light - but instead it focuses on the people who inhabit these places and attempts to capture the deeper spirituality that comes with living in such an environment. There are some beautiful dolly shots running through temples and one brilliantly edited scene where the camera sweeps around groups of chanting worshippers, is one of the more remarkable images in the film.
In the middle section there are some similarities to Fricke’s work as cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. There are several shots of faces looking directly into the camera and the group shots of people of different professions – images much imitated by music videos and television commercials and, in almost identical shots to those used in Koyaanisqatsi, there is also the time-lapse photography of speeded-up cars on busy city street intersections, masses of people crossing roads, on escalators and of products on conveyor-belt lines. One of the most striking images for me was of hundreds upon hundreds of little yellow chicks on a conveyor-belt, being examined just like any other product, selected and packed off, presumably for a battery-hen farm.
Rather than focus on the predictable images of mass consumerism seen in both Koyaanisqatsi however, the film shows the effects of mass consumerism especially on the poorer regions of the world. We are shown images of the slums of Rio de Janeiro, far-eastern sweatshops and people in India scavenging on rubbish dumps. While this is close to the themes of Powaqqatsi, Baraka delves much further into human misery than either that or Koyaanisqatsi, with scenes of walls filled with photographs of those who died in Auschwitz and collections of skulls from the Cambodian killing-fields.
In the final third of the film however, we return to the theme of ‘blessings’ with images of ancient Egypt monuments, Cambodian temples (the ruins of Angkor Wat, also seen in In The Mood For Love), religious rituals on the banks of the Ganges and a beautiful final sequence that takes the film up into the stars.
Good clear packaging by Second Sight informs us of all the technical details of the film, so you will know what you are getting before buying. The film is presented in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, anamorphically enhanced for 16x9 TVs. On a technical level the image is almost flawless. There is not a scratch, dustspot or flicker to spoil the marvellous photography. Reel-change marks are still on the print however, and I detected one instance of digital image shift towards the end of the film, but these are only minor problems.
The sound is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and all speakers are well used to give an enveloping surround-sound experience. Explosions, crashing trees and deep drumming rhythms of the accompanying music reverberate on all the speakers. The soundtrack is excellent – ethnic pipes, tribal drumming, vocal arrangements and electronic music, all fit the mood of the film marvellously and are again, brilliantly distributed across the 5.1 sound spectrum.
The extras for this type of film are quite good. Apart from the trailer, there is also an 8 minute Making Of Baraka feature on the process of filming, choices of equipment and locations and the logistics of making a film of this scale. A 6 minute section for Crew Interviews repeats a lot of the information used in the ‘Making Of’ and a short Behind The Scenes shows the preparations (and difficulties) involved in shooting a couple of the scenes.
Baraka was filmed in 24 countries. Working with a canvas that size, a director risks painting everything with big brush strokes (or a big roller, for a film of this scale!) and missing the finer detail. By focusing on the people over the scenery Ron Fricke tries to address this, but strangely, despite some powerful images and beautiful widescreen photography, it is an experience that never seems to touch as deeply as Koyaanisqatsi. Nevertheless, it is a wonderful film and an astonishing viewing experience that is well-served by this DVD release.