It is tempting to adopt the view that what Samsara provides us a venue for the ‘oriental gaze’ (in a cute mishmash of Said and psychoanalytic approaches to cinema, especially Mulvey’s ‘feminist’ overtaking of the theoretical dishing in the said medium) to be launched against the supposedly ‘orientalizing’ viewers. Post-colonialists already said a great deal about this, from Orientalism where Said spoke of the West conjuring and valuing the East according to it images and against its own standards, and Homi Bhabha’s concepts of hybridity and mimicry that afford the Oriental the potential to unsettle the power relations established by the West.
Notwithstanding the pitfalls of the dominant voices in post-colonial theory, namely in Bhabha, its appropriation of abstracted psychoanalytical concepts and in general for everyone, the usually susceptible identification of a particular category (gender, class, race among others) as the root of inequality and oppression and hence must be the basis of any struggle, they cannot help but be mentally retrieved in thinking about the experimental film Samsara.
At first, and even though it does not overtly claim it, Samsara can remind us of “The Man with a Movie Camera,” another experimental film, albeit a very early one, that aims to construct a filmic language completely distinct from the language of theater of literature. I am yet to finish watching this latter, although what I infer from it, aside from the usual realist bent purported by most films, is its wish to exist without an overt narrative. There will be no dialogues and characters, as in novels or plays, only sounds and images (including people, which are different from ‘characters’). Samsara appears to be following this principle and it proved to be very clever and ingenuous both in selecting and capturing the images it showed in itself.
The first and last images speak of the communality that is certainly stronger in the East than in the West. The dancing rituals, among other special, if not charming (hopefully not to verge towards an exoticizing tone) manifestations of traditions and cultures of communities say something about the traits of the people in these communities.
Aside from the sense of communality and the synchronicity and interdependence it carries, there are also the intense concentration and assiduity manifested in the sand art the men were doing inside their temples shown in the early part of the film.
A powerfully troubling transition occurs from the shot of a black woman with hair covered with some leaf (a cultural practice, my girlfriend and I agreed), silently but grimly looking at the camera, to the shot of an Asian superhighway, presumably in Tokyo. This I read as the transition from the more cherished traditional to the contradictory global and eclectic. A very admirable shot from the ‘traditional’ phase of the film is the one that captures, mostly in medium shots and in low-angles, the passing of day and night in a land with nothing or no one in it aside from sculptures of human faces. Many other passing-of-day shots can be located in the first part of the film, and they serve to show the less spoiled places of habitation and the surrounding environment of the earlier, more traditional people: the beautiful and intricate creations of nature, the various rock shapes, the waterfalls overlooking thick forests, the cave-like formation of soils. All these wonderful pieces of nature rightfully precede the ‘gaze’ of the traditional man with some white sort of painting over his dark brown face and a big accessory strapped on his head. He (or she?) is then shown with two others, all of them wearing beaded accessories, all of them gravely looking at the viewer, via the camera. After them are curly-haired, bare-breasted, black women, rich in necklaces, having their way to gaze too. A few shots before the shift to the city were allotted to survey the villages of these ‘traditional’ people, their domiciles and their tools inside them. Then we were transported, hopefully not with a shock after all the perhaps disconcerting images from a ‘distant’ space, if not time, to the more familiar images of the city: the rapid cars moving and making the city twinkle from afar, the ‘robotic’ 8-5 workers among others. An interesting scene here is Mr. Coat and Tie putting off his eyeglasses before disfiguring himself hysterically. These words hardly give justice to the blunt unfolding of the sequence. The madness in the office is made evident.
Rapidity comes again in the superhighway and then in gymnasiums and in golf courses and in amusement parks and the same story about the contemporary urban is made crisper here. The yakuzas of Japan, the countercultural emos and punks, the mostly delectable potential of interracial relationships – all these are shown I think as if to add vitality to the multitudinous in the city.
And then we get to my favorite part: the assembly line production of the everyday goods we put in our mouth, we stuff our bodies with: the chickens and cows and the fattened pigs and the microchips that we will purchase in the supermarkets and fastfoods in the form of oily hamburgers or ostentatious gadgets. Here, Lukacs could be smiling wryly, if not dejectedly, with his interpretations getting to live in the flesh: reification triumphs when in the process of our consumption, we are completely oblivious, if not unaware of the process of production which our consumed products underwent. In this production process, there are no people. There are only a mass of bodies with efficient hands and eyes and ears dressed in the same clothes, waiting for the others as they finish their task so they can do theirs. The product is the focus: the color of its cover, the fit of the screws and wires, the smoothness of its grip or the greatness of its size and the people who contribute in furnishing these products to everyday consumers are erased in the process. The disorienting gaze continues, Samsara seems to vow to slap us in the face not only with the images they show but more so, with these gazes from the very people who are part of these images. The Japanese geisha sheds a tear after the barrage of sex toys and the ‘real’ sex toys flood the screen.
The men and women in prison from the Philippines wearing the classic orange clothes are also shown looking at the camera deadpan, perhaps taunting and contending with the viewer, largely succeeding in refusing any taming, any interpretation, any judgment. To me, this is where Samsara is strongest, when the people in it disrespect the camera, when they annihilate, and ironically in a very quiet and peaceful manner, the illusion of a separation between ‘looking subject’ and ‘object-looked-at’ made by the camera. When the people in the ‘scenes’ are suddenly elevated from the screen in order to look at the viewer, not only to accomplish a Brechtian alienation effect that should disturb the assumed, lulled audience, but more terribly, following Zizek, to imply that these images are not “just strips of film, hence, not real;” but exactly the opposite: these images are real, they are not just part of a film. These are not just a screen away from the audience; they are all living in the same place as the audience.
After all these haunting, Samsara returned to our view the female dancers wearing complexly ornate and I assume, delicately made clothes. They then did their dance, or ritual, again showing synchronicity and harmony without an apparent effort. This scene made me feel awfully shameful of myself and my culture and the dominant culture of most people. We always mourn the consumerist culture and all its individualist, alienating, profiteering adjuncts and when we see something like this dance, this magnanimous display of sheer collective harmony harnessed in a tradition protected and developed over generations, the sickening feeling of being mired in the present, dominant culture only gets more puncturing.
The film ended with a tracking shot of a desert which I assume to be somewhere in Asia too and I try to refrain myself from reading this as the filmmakers’ discreet call for a return to nature, a supposedly more pristine, less corrupted nature.
Aside from being a passé one, it misses the entire complexity of existing social and economic conditions that underline everything the film showed. Indeed, images can barely speak, they can barely ramble an exposition; they can only show themselves. This is what I see as one of the major backlogs of the kind of film envisioned and already actualized by The Man with a Movie Camera and Samsara. Images, after all human intervention in the process of selection, editing and all that, when they are flashed in the screen, must not signal the end of the enterprise. These images must speak more explicitly. This is where narrative obviously helps. This is where actual characters, with their implied active human consciousnesses can help a lot. It is through these characters that the audience can be illuminated more and the situations depicted in the film shown to be alterable. This is the biggest loss in Samsara, after all its magnificent, wide array of shots and their various, significant implications, a loss that concerns what I believe should be the primary aims of cinema: an exposition of relevant social truths and the human agency that must continually come before and after these truths.