Director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson (the creators of Baraka) traveled to 25 countries over the span of five years, filming the 2011 non-narrative documentary, Samsara. The stunning movie arrives on Blu-ray tomorrow. Described as “a nonverbal, guided meditation,” the film was shot on 70mm and explores the interconnectedness that humanity shares with the rest of nature — from the world’s most sacred spaces, to industrial sites populated with machines. It’s the wheel of life and human experience captured with breathtaking photography. These types of contemplative, non-narrative features allow audiences to traverse every corner of the earth, immersed in a powerful, transcendent journey of self-discovery. See our picks for similar meditative movies, below.
Director Tony Gatlif (of Romani descent) took audiences through a yearlong journey of music, dance, and Romani culture across Egypt, Slovakia, Romania, India, Spain, Hungary, and France. Lively music from now internationally famous troupes like Taraf de Haïdouks becomes the narration for a story of family, persecution (from the days of Hitler, to our time), and humanity.
The exotic title reveals some of the 1992 film’s core themes — religious, spiritual, and human expression. Baraka is a Sufi word that means “blessing” in several languages, and the daily rituals of monks, tribes, and other people are explored in Ron Fricke’s film (also photographed in 70mm). Baraka was shot in 24 countries across six continents over a 14-month period. Fricke’s guided meditation, captured through incredible time-lapse photography, is a universal cultural perspective on the complex web of nature and man. You’ve seen Fricke’s work as a cinematographer before in Koyaanisqatsi — a film that is frequently compared to Baraka, and the next non-narrative favorite on our list.
Godfrey Reggio directs this time-lapse tone poem set to an original, moving recording by Philip Glass. The 1982 experimental feature is the first in the Qatsi trilogy (Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi followed) and shows us a “life out of balance.” Reggio has stated:
“It is up [to] the viewer to take for himself/herself what it is that [the film] means. These films have never been about the effect of technology, of industry on people. It’s been that everyone: politics, education, things of the financial structure, the nation state structure, language, the culture, religion, all of that exists within the host of technology. So it’s not the effect of, it’s that everything exists within [technology]. It’s not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe.”
Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou’s Cannes 1996 Technical Grand Prize winner, Microcosmos, reveals an entrancing, hidden world beneath our feet that pulses with life. The filmmaking team conducted insect research over the course of 15 years in order to capture the alien environment of the delicate creatures. The fascinating dramas, relationships, and tragedies of their world are not entirely unlike our own.
Yes, the director who created violent thrillers like Léon and The Transporter made a non-speaking meditation on life set entirely underwater. Luc Besson’s Atlantis recalls the filmamker’s childhood aspirations of becoming a marine biologist. He grew up in a family of scuba divers in seaside resort cities across Italy and Greece. A diving accident left him unable to pursue his dreams, and it’s clear that Atlantis speaks from his heart. The underwater ballet was shot over a two-year period, and the sounds of French composer Éric Serra are a sublime complement to Besson’s creative cinematography.
Ambient composer Virgil Enzinger (featuring music by Michael Sterns) is featured on Fabian Enzinger’s Zen, which journeys to a Zen temple in the remote Japanese Alps, revealing the mindfulness and spirit of the practice. Inky brushstrokes, swirling smoke, and hands poised in silence are not as strikingly photographed as some of the other movies on our list, but snapshots of the still world offer pleasant moments of reflection.
Patrice Leconte’s Dogora – Ouvrons les yeux is primarily focused on creating an impressionistic view of the everyday lives of Cambodians, but the routines are universal: eat, sleep, work, commute, play. It’s a naturalistic portrait that introduces elements unique to Cambodia, such as the Southeast Asian country’s complex labor rights issues (shots of a sweatshop). The Étienne Perruchon soundtrack is jarring at times, but we can overlook the incongruous classical, chanted arrangements for the film’s blissful scenes of simplicity.
John Cage said: “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.” The discordant sounds of Michael Gordon’s score for Bill Morrison’s Decasia are deafening. The film is an abstract view of physicality and temporality, united with decaying archival film footage. Decomposing visions meld against a cacophony of noise, engaging the dark within.
Steve Bilich’s Native New Yorker won Best Documentary Short at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival. Set to an original score by William Susman, the 13-minute film was shot before, during, and after the tragic events of September 11, 2001 with a 1924 hand-crank, spring-wound Cine-Kodak camera. Terry “Coyote” Murphy is our guide through New York — from places like Inwood Park (“where the island was traded for beads and booze”) to Ground Zero (“sacred burial ground, now including the newest natives of this island empire”). The journey weaves us in and out of the past and across cultures, transcending time. You can download the movie, or rent it on Amazon.
One of the earliest examples of American art cinema, Slavko Vorkapich and John Hoffman’s Moods of the Sea from 1941 is essentially a black-and-white, avant-garde experiment depicting crashing waves and set to Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave.” The arrangement of oceanic images was edited to read more like a poem or piece of music.