Without words, cameras show us the world, with an emphasis not on “where,” but on “what’s there.” It begins with morning, natural landscapes and people at prayer: volcanoes, water falls, veldts, and forests; several hundred monks do a monkey chant. Indigenous peoples apply body paint; whole villages dance. The film moves to destruction of nature via logging, blasting, and strip mining. Images of poverty, rapid urban life, and factories give way to war, concentration camps, and mass graves. Ancient ruins come into view, and then a sacred river where pilgrims bathe and funeral pyres burn. Prayer and nature return. A monk rings a huge bell; stars wheel across the sky.
Named after a Sufi word that translates roughly as breath of life orblessing, Baraka is Ron Fricke’s impressive follow-up to Godfrey Reggio’s non-verbal documentary film Koyaanisqatsi. Fricke was cinematographer and collaborator on Reggio’s film, and for Baraka he struck out on his own to polish and expand the photographic techniques used on Koyaanisqatsi.
The result is a tour-de-force in 70mm: a cinematic guided meditation(Fricke’s own description) shot in 24 countries on six continents over a 14-month period that unites religious ritual, the phenomena of nature, and man’s own destructive powers into a web of moving images.
Fricke’s camera ranges, in meditative slow motion or bewildering time-lapse, over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Ryoan-Ji temple in Kyoto, Lake Natron in Tanzania, burning oil fields in Kuwait, the smoldering precipice of an active volcano, a busy subway terminal, tribal celebrations of the Masai in Kenya, chanting monks in the Dip Tse Chok Ling monastery…and on and on, through locales across the globe. To execute the film’s time-lapse sequences, Fricke had a special camera built that combined time-lapse photography with perfectly controlled movements.