Doc of the Day: Baraka Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Baraka

Posted in Days of Docs by - March 26, 2012

See all the wonders of planet Earth, without any words to ruin the experience.

Dir. Ron Fricke, 1993, 104 min

“Baraka” is a word used in multiple languages, including Hebrew and Arabic, meaning “blessings” in all of them. Baraka, befitting it’s title, is a sort of benediction for humanity, a quiet call for unity among humanity. The film points to our commonality as a species, and to the overwhelming beauty of our planet, both in the natural and constructed spheres. It is a film so lovely to behold that it’s almost painful, both on levels of technical brilliance and symbolic power.

The documentary, filmed among hundreds of natural wonders, historical landmarks, and modern tableaus across more than twenty countries, acts as a sort of impressionistic travelogue of Earth. It jumps from one place to another in a progression that is thematic rather than geographically logical. One minute it’s in the Himalayas, the next it’s in the jungles of Ecuador.

But every transition makes sense in context. Each illustrates a connection between disparate aspects of the world. All of this is in service to the overarching theme of our own connectedness, to ourselves as humans and to nature. This is a conceit that’s become well-worn, but it’s one of the few “tired” ideas that I’m not tired of. Perhaps it’s because this is so simply and crucially true, yet so many still try to ignore it. Those denialists will look at this film and see nothing but a series of pretty images.

Oh, and those images! Director Ron Fricke shot Baraka in 70mm, making it at the time the first movie in over twenty years to use the format. It’s a gauge that’s visually synonymous with epicness, making images so large most theaters can’t handle them, and so sharp you could cut your eyes just looking at them. How good does Baraka look? Watching Baraka makes your eyes feel like they’re swimming in puppies. Watching Baraka is like giving your eyes an ice cream feast. Watching Baraka will cure diseases.

The movie is a stained-glass window of the planet, encompassing scenes of every conceivable subject. Animals frolic, and their mass movements look like the migrations of cars at a busy intersection. Machinery imitates life, even as we use the former to destroy the latter. A serene Amazonian tree topples in sorrowful grace. Bombs gouge a mine out of pristine countryside. The guests of a Japanese hotel look like bees in a hive, cramming themselves into niche, shelf-like “rooms.”   It’s life, and it’s us, all in our illogical glory.

Fricke worked as cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy of documentaries. I haven’t seen any of those films, but from what I understand of them, Fricke may be directly/lovingly ripping off their approach here. Perhaps when I do get around to Koyaanisqatsi and its sequels, this will look diminished by comparison. I doubt it, though.

Baraka is the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. You feel like it has the key to evolution locked within, and that if you could stare into it long enough, you’d unlock a higher consciousness. It’s a movie about everything, and seeing it honestly makes me a little ashamed that I put a piece of fluff like Life in a Day on a “best of” list. This is the real deal of human experience.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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