‘Samsara’ (2012) dir. Ron Fricke


Samsara is a Sanskrit word used in eastern religions to denote the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth. Filmed in twenty five countries over five years, visiting sacred sites, disaster zones, industrial sites, cities and natural wonders, the film fuses together the ancient and the modern. There is no dialogue. There is no text. It is not a documentary in the traditional sense. Instead, the viewer is encouraged to draw their own interpretation from the flow of images and music.

The film adopts a circular structure, bookended between scenes of a group of monks forming and erasing a powder representation of the ‘wheel of life’, an emblem of the ‘transcience of the phenomenal world’ (Bitel, 2012). Between these scenes is a kaleidoscope of oppositions, such as nature and culture, spirituality and materiality, wealth and poverty, war and peace.

There is a noticeable absence of people in many of the film’s opening scenes. For example, in the fields of temples there is no one in sight; the empty expanses of desert; the sand filled rooms of an abandoned house in the desert; the derelict, storm damaged lounge, bedroom, supermarket, library and classroom in an abandoned town; the empty cathedral.

The film becomes more populated as it moves on. Such as the office employees, the African women, the tattooed man with a baby, the two spectacled employees, pole dancers, a geisha. Where people are present, the picture is not always a rosy one, such as the teenagers scavenging in a rubbish dump, men quarrying for yellow rock, the family at a funeral, men standing proudly with their guns. These images of materiality, poverty and war, of people in disparate parts of the world, are contained within the bookend images of the monks forming and erasing the ‘wheel of life’, reinforcing the idea of birth, death and rebirth, and giving a sense of hope in an otherwise bleak picture of the planet.

However, I think it is important to ‘read’ the film in much the same way you would read a poem. As a meditation on nature and humanity. The images flowing through a series of associations, like the imagery within a poem.

A.O. Scott (2012) describes the film’s structure as ‘like that of a poem or a sonata, a complex tissue of rhymes and motifs’. Like a poem, with its ‘complex tissue’ of rhyme and images, it’s only when you get to the end of the film that you have a sense of the full picture. Then, when it’s just within your grasp, you go back to the beginning and ‘re-read’ it again, maybe several times more, in order to get the most out of it.

Scott (2012) makes another very interesting point about the film. Referring to Susan Sontag’s plea for ‘an ecology of images’ (Sontag, 1979), he suggests that Samsara ‘presents a visual argument for slow looking, for careful meditative attention to what is seen.’ I like the idea of ‘slow looking’ and the need to pay ‘careful meditative attention’ to what is seen through the viewfinder.


Bitel, A., 2012 ‘Samsara’. Sight and Sound Number 22 Issue 9, page 110.

Samsara 2012 Directed by Ron Fricke [DVD]

Scott, A.O. 2012 ‘Around the World in 99 Minutes and Zero Words’ In: The New York Times At: https://nyti.ms/P54fr2 [Accessed on 15 June 2018]

Sontag, S. 1979 On Photography London: Penguin Books, page 180