i haven't written in a while so i thought i would throw up a first draft analysis of one of my favorite films, baraka.
A Time to Consider
The film Baraka is a brilliant and exemplary model of the effective use of poetic mode in documentary filmmaking. The lack of linier time or established location, the lack of explicative voiceover narrative, and the inclusion of manipulated sound and performance, work to make this film a work of art that documents truth in a unique and original form from a unique and original perspective that could be no one but filmmaker's own.
Music and sound play as large role in this film as the stunning visuals, which is a poetic replacement for traditional, expository form voiceover narration. Baraka opens with the sound of a woodwind instrument- solitary notes suspended in darkness that give the impression of space, solitude, and a harmony. This initial music introduces us to another vital element in the film- the presence of silence.
The silences between the music are as vital and meaningful as the music itself. Mingling sound and silence generates one of the key elements of poetic mode filmmaking, mood, and through mood, we derive meaning. In this first portion of the film, we are left feeling thoughtful, balanced, and conscientious, experiencing time at a rate slowed to near timelessness.
The first image that accompanies the music is a long shot of the majestic, snowcapped Himalayan mountain range. The only visual movement in this series of shots of these humbling masses of earth, including Mt. Everest, are the motions of birds, clouds, and the occasional tilt of the camera as it absorbs the grace of the landscape. This stillness contrasting movement gives the impression of what ultimately lasts.
We eventually land on an extreme close-up of a red-faced macaque monkey, whose physical behavior and expressions mirror our own. The monkey looks past or through us for a moment, but we don't quite make a connection. He instead looks away and down, as if in deep thought.
Fricke takes this opportunity to suggest the theme and tone of the entire film through a simple cut. Shifting from the reflective face of the monkey, who represents not only humans but all living things, to an image of a full, starry night sky, Fricke humanizes the animal who we infer is contemplating the universe. He then emphasizes that connection by then cutting back to the monkey, who closes his eyes in apparent meditation. The music, meanwhile, becomes more ethereal, through the introduction of a harmonic string addition, culminating in a cut to the title card with the solar eclipse, a recurring metaphor, and the word Baraka, which translates to 'blessing' in a number of cultures.
This opening sequence does what Bill Nichols, in his book Introduction to Documentary, says poetic documentaries should do, which is "explore associations and patterns that involve temoporal rhythems and spacial juxtapositions" (102). These associations compose meaning in poetic dialogue, leaving rhetoric to digress in its wake.
From the image of the solar eclipse, we cut to civilization- men and women walking through a dusty passage between man-made structures- and we begin to hear a distant bell whose presence will grow audibly stronger the closer we come to the heart of the film. The camera then pans over white-tipped buildings, visual echoes of the mountains we just saw. Another shot, a medium shot just of the roofs, again shows birds flocking to these artificial mountain.
We then cut to a shot of people standing in a corridor between brick dwellings, closing in on the half covered face of a man who appears to be looking at us but whose head is angled in such a way that we cannot quite be sure. The eye contact is not direct but the sound of the bell again clangs softly in the background.
Thematic meditation and connectivity are revisited visually in the following images of chanting and prayer: an Indian Yogi sitting with an open book of scripture; a Jew following his own book of scripture and tradition. We witness Sufis, Muslims, Christians, and Zen Buddhists all engaged in their respective practices of worship.
In one shot, Fricke focuses on the eyes of a female Zen Buddhist in meditation. He then cuts to the eyes of another woman, eyes that are in a photograph for an advertisement on a peeling Hong Kong billboard. Here we are first introduced to the Western world, as well as Fricke's view of it. Worship in the Westernized city seems to be of a very different nature than elsewhere.
We cut to the sound of bell-like instruments collaged with the sound of water- another important symbol in the film- rising over an image of monkeys gathered on the precipice of a cliff. A shot of a Balinese woman walking with fruit on her head tilts up to reveal a landscaped hill of rice terraces behind her, introducing man's meeting with nature and manipulation over it.
A close-up of dancing men etched into the stone of a Cambodian temple marks the speed of time as the shadow and light of the sun move swiftly across the face of the stone. Bell-like instruments continue to clang in increased discordance as we later cut away to Indonesian stone structures that physically resemble larger-than-life bells. Within each one sits a meditating Buddha.
Now in another part of Indonesia, we observe a mass of seated men moving together rhythmically in a Kecak Dance, a "monkey chant," again melding man and animal, life, together in visual, oral, symbolic unity.
What comes next is a return to nature- a series of shots of volcanoes, deserts, and canyons. Time begins to morph through time-lapse as clouds pour over and around mountains and crevices like ethereal waterfalls. Sweeping over a range of canyons that are in long focus, we watch the sun rise and be replaced by a darkened sky of stars in a matter of seconds. The camera tilts up to follow this action but in the next shot, the camera rests on a group of uninhabited structures built into the side of a mountain by a forgotten civilization. The rapidly moving, time-lapsed sun in frame reinforces the suggestion that civilization is insignificant in comparison to the lasting nature of nature itself. In the midst of these organic scenes, we revisit the image of the sun, this time moving out of eclipse, embarking on its next cycle.
Jumping in time and place again, we cut to Australian. A close up of seemingly ancient cave paintings reveals a color and pattern that matches the style of face painting seen in the adjacent image- a close up on the face of an Aboriginal man whose eyes are the first to directly break the camera's plane. Staring at us and with his painted face, he proposes a different kind of existence, one in which flesh is equal to earth where they are mere extensions of one another, all part of the same blank canvas.
Leaping from Australia to Brazil and then to Africa, we witness the extended web of human connectivity again in a series of images and sounds. Like the act of prayer, practiced in individual ways but shared as an act by all, beads here unite different cultures: the Maasi and the Yanomami. Additionally, we see and hear the rising force of their concentrated, ritualistic song, created as a communal sound and a common voice. The Maasi men and women of Kenya, who dance in a leaping figuration, seem to slip off into a private nirvana, meanwhile. One that is paradoxically shared by and attained through the group. This African song bleeds into a Brazilian one, also accompanied by an group dance. Returning to Australia, the screen is overcome by a Tiwi Island tribe engaged in their own song and dance, part of a funeral ceremony. The increased song of drums on the soundtrack forge a air of drama, implying a moment of tension and urgency with regard to what may soon be lost.
We cut to a flight of flamingos flying in a pack over dark water, singing their cries after the sound of drums drops from beneath us, but it is the sight of another flock of birds later in the film that is truly awe-inspiring. The birds fly over a pristine body of water so still that it perfectly reflects the sky in a way that, for a moment, we cannot separate the two. They appear a seamless whole. It is only when we cut to a wider perspective that the distinction between heaven and earth can be made.
At this point, the sound of thunder replaces all sound except the rain, introducing us to the metaphorical storm we've encountered, symbolic of the destructive forces man presents to the universe. We cut to the sight and sound of a machine- a chainsaw- ripping through an enormous and majestic tree in the rainforest. We then cut to a close-up of a Brazilian tribesman whose eyes are filled with steady alarm. The sounds of insects sing with amplified urgency until the world goes momentarily mute, only to be filled by the sight and sound of a explosion, man's detonation of a gold mine.
The music becomes more and more discordant as we observe the decimation and exploitation of nature: Chuquicamata, Chile, where the land has been carved out of existence; wetlands, where nature is no longer able to produce foliage; and the perplexed face of a child, who Fricke uses to personify innocence and future as the child's face becomes the canvas for the projective registration of destruction.
We discover a new world- one perhaps more familiar to us, one we might call 'modern'. We start by looking out over stacked city dwellings, the box slums of Rio. The music for the first time takes on clearly defined structure and melodies, something that might be heard playing from any of the houses we observe. Medium shots of children and adults staring listlessly out of windows, some of the windows covered by bars, give the impression of people imprisoned in cages- a parallel that will be made again later in the film.
The sight of Kowloon Wall in Hong Kong-a filthy wall of box-like apartments placed atop one another- is powerfully juxtaposed with both a slower, funeral piece of music and a visual of the White City Cemetery in Ecuador, an above ground burial site of box-like coffins placed atop one another like the apartments of the Kowloon Wall, though the cemetery is cleaner. A two-pronged suggestion is made: that cities often house the living dead, and the people living in third world squalor are often treated better than the dead.
The following shot of a shiny white airplane flying over the Kowloon Wall not only introduces themes of technology and Capitalism, but shows who is benefiting from the exploitation of man and nature visible below. Yet because he is so high, the person in the airplane may not see how he is connected to the world beneath him.
The film shows Capitalism as a system that exploits one large population for the betterment of a much smaller, privileged one. This is represented by the juxtaposition of numerous cigarette makers working in a factory so a single man in a suit on a subway platform can smoke his cigarette in the next shot.
The sound of bells returns in their most audible incarnation yet as people move in and out of the cages of hotel capsules and subway cars. When we cut to a Japanese monk whose feet are in shoes webbed like an animal's, walking down the street, ringing a bell in traditional dress, we can interpret a number of things.
There is the old versus new, seen in the contrasting clothing of the monk and the sea of people around him as well as in the individualist attitude of the city bypassers seen here and the community ethic seen earlier. There is slow versus fast pace of life, as well directional versus non-directional living. The singular focus on the monk in the midst of it all, and the concentration on the sound of his bell, implies that he is a messenger sounding a warning, though we haven't entirely grasped what the warning is.
Perhaps the message is that man is not entirely lost from his roots. We see a Japanese man emerge from a hot-tub with a fully adorned body of tattoos next to a shot of a Brazilian child whose body is also painted. However, it seems we are quickly losing that connection.
Through time-lapse, we see Park Avenue move at a dizzying pace. Cars drive, turn; people cross the streets. Muslims pray mechanically, with haste, in a mosque. Sidewalks overflow with people rushing to get somewhere. The clock in Grand Central Station records ten minutes of time in a couple of seconds while people clamor in the background to reach their destinations. Its mechanical hands seem to shape our existence, but only three school girls stand witness to it as they stare into the camera while the cages of subway cars carry men who cannot keep their eyes open off to work.
The music is percussive and ordered now as society operates like a well-oiled machine. Men and women in factories make computer parts while others make cigarettes. The human has become a faceless, replaceable cog operating at breakneck speed, detached from self or the connectivity to life, nature, and the rest of humanity.
Eggs are seen entering a system, hatched to baby chicks that are then treated and marked as inanimate objects and crushed into a crowed space that will take them where they're supposed to go. Cut to the image of men and women crushed into the crowded space of a subway car headed, presumably, to work.
The chicks are inspected and thrown in a container.
People pass a ticket inspector and enter a passageway.
The chicks are funneled into place.
A non-descript mass of machines is seen busy at work.
Marked and readied, the chicks grow up in long narrow rows of cages, producing eggs.
Long, narrow roads of Manhattan buzz as people enter to work at their cubicles.
The clanging sound of heavy machinery harkens in the background.
The close up on the face of a Japanese geisha unleashing a silent scream in performance is powerfully overlaid with the sound of sirens, punctuating the sense that something in our world has gone terribly wrong. We are not running the machine; the machine is running us.
Cutting to donkeys struggling with large workload as they climb uphill in Yemen, we can see the reprocussions of the American Dream, which is no longer just American but the dream of the entire Westernized, capitalist world. We then cut to a scene of the untouchable women of India, scavenging through piles of garbage along with the animals, in Calcutta. Oppressed and deprived by an exploitive system, man, Earth, and animal suffer, but who, asks the crying voice in the song placed behind the images and by the faces of female children peering into the lens for extended periods of time, will hold themselves accountable? Children drink dirty water; men, women, children, and dogs sleep on streets as detached people walk by without charity or acknowledgement, not seeing a wider connection.
The images of parents driving children on bicycles, motorcycles, or in barrels, indicates that we, the adults in society, are delivering them to the future. What will that future be like? If the child locked in a brick cage, staring out a window; the woman on the street selling herself to the gaze of potential male customers, who indulge in the sight of her; the line of young women in numbered pink robes outside a strip club; and finally, the moving Butoh dance performed by Japanese geishas, who interpret the horrific experience of Hiroshima as an artistic dance of facial convulsions and a haunting wave goodbye, it does not look like a promising one.
To the sound of drums, bassoons, and bagpipes, we hear the march of war and destruction. We see the a military airfield in Tucson, Arizona, a soldier at the Wailing Wall of Israel, the burning oil fields of Kuwait from the first Gulf War. The music picks up with locomotive speed, as if giving an aural shape the war machine, until it suddenly drops out completely, leaving silence and the sight of Jahra Road, on the Kuwait/Iraq border, filled with the corpses of machines and the memories of men. Meanwhile, those still alive, equipped with shovels, feed the fire or watch passively nearby as men did in Auschwitz, whose fences and faces occupy the next series of shots, along with other prison camps globally.
We return to the ancient culture of India, where man is reborn in cleansing himself in the holy Ganges- and where man returns to die, the mortal cage of flesh burned and restored to the source from which it came. Time then washes over us in the form of sped up clouds in a partially eclipsed sky, the sun coming full cycle.
The largest bell of all, tolled by a Buddhist monk, is almost completely silent when rung in the next shot. A Maasi man jumps in slow motion to a building chorus of otherworldly, harmonic sounds. The gong of the bell is heard as the sun is again fully obscured by an eclipse, which shortly begins to shift once more. A natural cycle and a return to something spiritual is captured in the sight of Whirling Dervishes, whose spins are show next in slow, hypnotic motion.
The music is now rich, a full recreation of the opening soundtrack that encompasses sounds from all over the world, blended into a single piece of music and illustrating the ability of each individual sound to exist harmoniously in more powerful group of sounds.
People practice all sorts of prayer in the next shots, finding peace with the cycle of life- of birth and death- in the circular movements of prayer, in the circular structures of mosques and churches, and in the circular orbit of Earth, giving us our experience of the passage of sun and moon. Through time-lapse photography of our natural environment and in the final shot of star-filled sky, the significance of our lives seems to be positioned as precious yet little, part of a cycle. The Earth, we can surmise, will be here throughout time. The question is, will we?
Links I Like
- My Website
- My Other (Less Wordy) Blog
- 52 Projects
- Amy Stein's Photography Blog
- Arts & Letters Daily
- Bells and Cockleshells
- Brad Linder's Blog (Audio Related)
- Brooklyn Vegan
- Cineholla Collective: Cullen's Blog
- Conscientious- Fine-art Photography Blog
- Conversational Reading
- Current TV
- DIY Photography
- Errol Morris's Homepage
- Film is Not Dead
- Flak Photo
- Forgotten NY
- Free Sound Project
- Graphic Literature Library Guide
- Graphic Novel Resource from UNC
- John Stember Photography
- JPG Magazine
- Learning to Love You More
- Librarians' Internet Index
- New York Times
- On the Issues
- Peter Stember Photography
- Pitchfork TV
- Public Radio eXchange
- Resources for Documentarians
- Salon Magazine
- Salt Blog
- Slate Magazine
- Sound Portraits
- Story Corps
- Stranger Than Fiction IFC
- The Believer Magazine
- The Economist
- The Nation
- The New Breed of Documentary Photographers
- The Online Photographer
- Third Coast Festival
- This American Life
- White Whale Crossing
- Wired Magazine