City Nomads’ Documentary of the Month: ‘Samsara’

Samsara’, which translates to the continuous circle of life and rebirth in Sanskrit, chronicles elements of life, death, ritual, devastation, and natural wonders through abstract image and sound. That’s right, this is a film with no narration, without a single word uttered.

Shot over five years and across 25 countries, this award-winning work has been long-praised for being frustratingly beautiful. It’s flawlessly filmed in meticulous high-definition quality, so you’ll be faced with imagery so powerful and thought-provoking, it questions your ideals and attitude towards the world. In the opening scene, you observe Tibetan monks painstakingly pouring streams of coloured sands to create the intricate patterns of the mandala. And that is the lesson in itself – to reflect on the values of patience and gratitude while making something so fragile.


As you progress through the film, you’re faced with stunning visuals of a volcanic eruption in Hawaii, the ubiquitous buddhist temples in Myanmar‘s Bagan, the City of the Dead in Egypt, and the Mono Lake in California. Apart from images of both natural and manmade wonders, there are other lovely, feel-good scenes, like a baptism in Europe. We see the film’s director, Ron Fricke, documenting the reactions from baptismal candidates of all ages and skin tones, and it’s the stillness of these lavishly framed scenes that evokes a sense of calm in us.

What gets us most is the brilliant and somewhat obscene juxtaposition of images in the film. Take the scene in China for instance, where a slaughterhouse of chickens by the thousands are quickly, if not brutally, slaughtered by mechanical blades in a factory. Following this are depictions of obese Americans in hospitals seeking treatment – contrasting and comparatively indicating the greed that has overtaken the principles of what it means to be humane.

Elsewhere, we see women cloaked from head to toe in burqas at a bus stop in Dubai, waiting by an underwear advertisement with almost-nude models; a mutilated war veteran following footage of a gun factory; and the detailed construction of sex dolls against a scene of Thai bar girls partying. We’d be lying if we said there weren’t moments when we feel overwhelmed (imprisoned, even) by the monstrosity of humankind forced upon us.

As you globe-trot with Fricke through the 102 minutes, there are some hauntingly gorgeous portraits of people staring directly into the camera. Most of them left us staring right back at their mesmeric gaze in admiration, but one particular cut of a geisha shedding a tear – well, it’s heartbreaking. As a viewer, we can only gaze her pain and sadness through those eyes.

As ‘Samsara‘ comes to a close, a mass of unconnected thoughts gush through, questioning the correct flow of certain sequences. Some message that Fricke tries to convey are clearcut, while others have a tinge of ambiguity, which did leave some of us perplexed. It’s also intriguing that he attempts to break stereotypes and debunk stigmas on “flawed” individuals; like the scene of a heavily tattooed man cradling a baby and expressing intense adoration. And as the audience, all we can do is try to interpret this meditative examination of life in a way only we can.

Watch ‘Samsara‘ on iTunes and Amazon Video.

Brenda Ash

A water junkie who never strays from her intake of H20, it is perfectly normal to spot her at cafés and bars with her trusty 1.5L bottle. Often out and about, Brenda savours the taste for new experiences, not without her bottle companion of course.