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Fuzzy yellow chicks are packed onto a series of rapidly moving conveyor belts. As one belt gives way to the next, the chicks fall, tumbling over and onto each other. Workers pick up each chick and hastily determine its sex before throwing it down one of two huge stainless-steel chutes. The chicks disappear through a hole at the bottom and reappear on another belt, from which they are picked up one by one and their heads pressed against a hot metal bar that smokes as their beaks give way. Meanwhile, a snow monkey sits languidly in a steaming mountain pool, its sleepy pink-lidded eyes kept open with increasing difficulty.
Such are the juxtapositions which typify Baraka (a Sufi word that means “blessing, breath, or the essence of life”), Mark Magidson and Ron Fricke’s visually arresting and wordless bid to capture some essence of the interaction between man, beast, and planet. Producer Magidson and director/cinematographer Fricke are no strangers to the use of images without dialogue: The pair co-produced Chronos, like Baraka, an IMAX film, and Fricke served as co-editor and director of photography for Koyaanisqatsi.
While it dwells at length on nature’s more spectacular beauties—gauzy cloud cover, a mound of bright green lizards, magnificent waterfalls—Baraka takes as its primary theme the arena in which human beings and nature overlap. And of this interaction, the film takes a very dim view indeed. Almost every link that it depicts between the human and natural world results in disaster for the latter: a chain saw gouges a tree, strip mining levels a mountain, a road has been burned and blackened by bombs. The filmmakers’ agenda becomes more explicit still when a block of high-rise tenements is contrasted with a cemetery of above-ground mausoleums—the two structures proving almost identical. Mankind, it seems, is destroying himself along with his environment, a premise which can hardly be called a novelty these days.
But it is one which can be readily substantiated. Take the evils of industrialization: When Baraka seeks examples of man’s attempt to impose order on the natural world, it turns again and again to factories, whose assembly lines and repetitive actions it uses to exemplify humanity’s capacity for dehumanization. In the aforementioned poultry plant, chickens are subject to this imposed order. Later, it is suggested that the workers in a dark and crowded Third World cigarette factory are analogous to the chicks. Seldom are humans and animals shown coexisting in harmony; in a somewhat heavy handed bid for irony, one of few such examples depicts people and wild dogs foraging for food side by side in a massive garbage dump.
The filmmakers claim inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, an influence discernible in Baraka‘s focus on religious ritual. A majority of the people who appear in the film are engaged in religious ceremony, and it is interesting that a film which documents the havoc wrought on earth by mankind is primarily concerned with humans as religious entities. The film’s panorama of elaborate religious rites and of ritual adornment seems to imply many things—the underlying similarity of all worship, the inherent danger in rigid specificity of belief, man’s dual nature, or maybe just that if everyone spent less time engaged in religious ceremony, the world would be a better place—but it’s not easy to gauge the filmmakers’ intent.
While Baraka‘s themes are not particularly startling or visionary, the film is pretty to look at—especially, I would hazard, on the 70 mm screens for which it is intended. After a while, however, the film’s jumps from locale to locale and culture to culture become dizzying. It is difficult not to tire of venturing half-baked guesses about the identities of the film’s subjects, most of which are not readily apparent. (Presumably such specifics are what separate Baraka from a National Geographic special.) Clearly, this wouldn’t matter so much if it didn’t seem that the filmmakers were relying on recognition to convey a portion of their message. Still more vexing is the film’s music: Baraka would have been much enlivened by a more arresting score. Composer Michael Stearns’ bland new-age fare hardly makes an impression, much less a contribution. (Where’s Philip Glass when you need him?)
Though the filmmakers went to great length to incorporate a breadth of peoples into Baraka—the film includes footage from 24 countries—the most overwhelming sensation that it evokes is one of commonality. Which, after all, is probably one of its fundamental points. At any rate, it’s the only one it makes effectively. Baraka includes too few moments like its most provocative, which exemplifies without judgment the coexistence of old and new, tradition and technology: A South American Indian gingerly uses a plastic comb dipped in color as a tool to apply his tribal face paint. Still, the conviction to never eat chicken again is the only one the film is likely to inspire.