Cinema as a Laboratory for intercultural harmony?

I was asked to talk about Cinema as a ‘Laboratory’ for intercultural harmony however; I do have reservations about the analogy. The word ‘laboratory’ brings to mind a rancid high school chemistry lab, which in my case always smelled like putrefying carrion when it did not smell of Sulphur of course. Ergo, I would like to use another – ‘Kitchen’ …

Cinema as a kitchen for whipping up intercultural harmony?

I do most acutely; passionately believe that if there are two things that can bring the people of the world together – they are food and movies, in any which order.

Put a plate of Peach Melba in front of any person from any part of the world and take it in writing from me you can get them to sign any release, transference, conversion etc. document right then as the person loses himself / herself in the gourmet affair. Of course, there could be exceptions of those who are allergic to peaches, raspberries, vanilla, ice cream, or all of the above but we are not talking about the exceptions.

In the same way, with exceptions ‘Moving Images’ have the ability to concoct such a beautiful world of emotions that very few can remain unaffected by and refrain from giving themselves into.

Every scene, every shot of every film is like a blossoming flower, revealing the nectar providing carpel within and when you look inside if you see a glimpse of your own world you feel warm and at home. On the other hand if you see a vision from a world other than yours, you are intrigued, hooked. As the drama unfolds you develop an admiration similar (may not be as intense), to the admiration you hold for your own world. With each blossoming flower, your knowledge and admiration grows and there just like that two worlds come together.

For me as an Indian, who has never stepped out of my country, watching movies from any other country might prove to be my window into their culture. For instance, Iran – a country although not too far from home was almost non-existent for me until recently, when I started watching Iranian films. Today, I feel such proximity to that land and such immense warmth for its people … the same can be said about Latin American Cinema or Korean films for that matter.

However … I suddenly feel that this is a very limiting example for there is a particular genre of cinema that transcends to an altogether higher level in comparison with cinema about and/or from individual lands. This uncategorized, unlabelled cinema in my belief is something that would’ve moved and transformed historical (evil) giants like Hitler, Truman, Amin and many more … (silly but noble thought, you must agree).

I am talking about documentary features about life on this planet - the likes of Baraka and the still to be released and feverishly awaited (by many) Samsara - This category according to me is of truly transcendental films that bring all the pieces of land of the world together as one whole, as it was before, recreating Pangaea.

There are many films in this category like the Qatsi trilogy Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi, Dogora, Ata Whenua Shadowland, Chronos and others based solely on wildlife like Anima Mundi, March of the Penguins, Blue Planet, and Planet Earth etc. However, my obvious bias towards the film Baraka and its Director Ron Fricke, which you might notice even without me mentioning it, isn’t unwarranted because for me Baraka marks the ‘coming of age’ of this genre of films. The film shot on 152 locations, in 24 countries, which took the crew around the world 3 times in 13 months, “captures the pulse of humanity as it flocks and swarms in daily life” using footage of various landscapes, churches, ruins, religious ceremonies, and cities burgeoning with life. A film without dialogue, story, or plot, it taps on themes that portray the world in a pristine atavistic yet new (to many) light, making you sit up and take notice. It makes you acutely aware of the actual El Dorado, the true Utopia that surrounds you and you leave the screening of the film with a newfound respect for the world and a resurgence of emotions for all in it.

According to Ron Fricke, “Baraka is in a lot of different cultures, it’s in a lot of different languages … it basically means the same thing ‘blessing’. This is like a journey of rediscovery, it takes you into nature, into history, into a social situation, it’s about reconnecting, it’s communicating on a level that I think is necessary”.

Mark Madigson, the Producer of the film explains better, “This is not a documentary travelogue. It’s supposed to be a moving emotional experience about life on our planet and it’s not about where is this and where is that”. Many a viewers try to label what they see in a film like Baraka, which possibly is a natural response for today’s well-educated metropolitan inhabitants. However, this act of labeling in itself destroys the purpose of the film, which in its way through it’s characters (the locations) is trying to present you with an essence of the world and life … This essence has the capability of imparting enlightenment … it depends on you whether you choose to receive it or not.

Ron Fricke also puts his message across beautifully in a featurette about the making of Baraka saying, “I really believe that we are connected to everything, that in a sense … I’ve been invited here to this planet just like you and everybody else has … and life didn’t ask anybody to approve of a guest list”.

Amongst other things, the film shot in Todd-AO (70 mm) also achieves cinematic excellence by using cutting-edge film technology to present beautiful high-resolution images.

Fricke who was a cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi developed a (65 mm) 70 mm time-lapse camera for his film Chronos (1985). In 1992, he came up with Baraka (many times better than Chronos) for which he designed and built a more flexible and complex version of the camera he designed for Chronos. Such special camera mechanics and rigging were built to handle the unusually long and smooth time-lapse shots planned, like a 24-hour shot of a desert while perfectly-evenly panning 180 degrees. The film is highly venerated for such exquisite time-lapse photography (a technique equally, if not more beautifully used in the recent Planet Earth series). For me the film, as a scrumptious blend of amazing visuals, sounds & music, dissolves one point of the world into another in a ‘join the dots’ fashion … and in my fantasy if you saw the dots joined together by Baraka from space, it would form an image of a unicorn, ‘a unicorn in utopia’.

Such a film requires to be viewed with a particular frame of mind in congenial settings to enhance the cinematic experience. Perhaps, this is exactly why an unusual screening of Baraka was held at the ‘Film Fra Syd’ (Films from South) festival in Copenhagen, Denmark wherein an arrangement was made to screen Baraka in 70mm in a swimming pool in Aug of 2000. Orla Nielsen spearheaded the project and a 12,2 meters (40 feet) wide screen was erected along with a modified projector and lens to suit the need. In front of the screen was a huge swimming pool amidst which seats were placed on a wooden deck. The screenings were a huge success and encouraged the sponsors to continue these screenings in the coming years. Upon hearing about it, director Ron Fricke expressed pleasure and said that it was one of his original ideas with Baraka to have it shown outside regular cinemas such as was done in Copenhagen.

“Baraka is a journey of rediscovery that plunges into nature, into history, into the human spirit and finally into the realm of the infinite". For me this film has been a cinematic experience that cannot be surpassed. I know, a single film like Baraka along with my fanciful appreciation of it cannot perhaps make the world an actual El Dorado/ a Utopia, for it will always exist with an awful amount of ‘vices’ (which the Latin American poet Joaquin Marta Sosa calls heridas or wounds albeit in the Latin American context) but just for a short while if you let go of these unyielding ideas about the world, this film will take you on a journey you will never forget.


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