The World Over (Amsterdam and Wellington: Stedelijk Museum and City Gallery Wellington, 1996).
They say everything is interconnected—it’s never been so true. Everyone knows the world is getting smaller. Technology has been cutting it down to size for ages. The wheel and the road; writing and the printing press; photography and the wireless; the telegraph and the telephone; planes, trains, and automobiles; movies and TV; wire pictures and syndicated news; satellites and the Internet—these things take us to the world and bring the world to us. Of course, as the world gets smaller, it also gets bigger. We have access to more, from more corners of our world; we have access to more than we can ever know. However, that access is framed up by the logic of capital—this is the essence of ‘globalisation’. The world is becoming one big market place, a shopping mall, a place to hang out.
The cinema participates in the commodification of local colour, transporting us to far-off lands, real and imagined. It shrinks the world by opening our eyes. In her book Window Shopping, Anne Friedberg traces the emergence of the cinema to big changes in the experience of space and time which informed modernity.1 Her archaeology links the cinema with proto-cinematic screen technologies of the nineteenth century, particularly the diorama and the panorama. These spectacular popular entertainments presented illusionistic views of far-off places and were offered as a substitute for travel. They were all-encompassing environments, worlds into which the viewer was absorbed. Celebrated for both their realism and their artifice, they were the forerunners to today’s virtual-reality technologies. For Friedberg, they epitomise the virtual gaze.
The nineteenth century also saw the rise of the Baudelairean flaneur, the leisured stroller, sampling the textures of the city. The flaneur followed no set route or programme, but constructed an experience through chance encounters, experiencing the city as something rich and strange. While the panorama and diorama offered the viewer an apparent centrality, a mastery of space, the flaneur pursued a more fugitive experience. He embraced a new kind of subjectivity, which Friedberg calls the ‘mobilised gaze’. This gaze was exemplified in the development of arcades (window shopping) and tourism—commodity forms of flanerie.
Friedberg argues that these two gazes were the necessary precondition for the development of the cinema as the mobile virtual gaze. The cinema transports viewers to elsewheres and elsewhens—it provides a virtual gaze. Through camera movements and cutting, it also affords a mobile gaze. The cinema is a form of virtual tourism: a means for a viewer to travel through times and spaces without moving.
While virtual tourism remains the implicit basis of cinema, American filmmaker Ron Fricke has been perfecting a new film genre which takes this idea as its explicit subject.2 His 1992 feature Baraka is virtual tourism on a global scale. Shot in twenty-four countries on six continents over fourteen months, Baraka attempts to encompass the world in ninety-six minutes. While presenting itself as something new, the film recalls cinema’s prehistory in spectacular entertainments that once domesticated distance and made the world seem smaller.
‘Baraka’ is an ancient Sufi term. It means a blessing, the breath or essence of life, that from which the evolutionary process unfolds. True, the filmmaker had grand ambitions. ‘Fricke embarked on a world-wide odyssey to capture the images that would tell the story of the earth’s evolution, of man’s diversity and interconnectedness, and his impact on the world he inhabits’. Baraka is a journey of rediscovery that plunges into nature, into history, into the human spirit, and finally into the realm of the infinite’, explains the press release.
Baraka is compendium, photo album, scrapbook. There are shots of sublime unpeopled landscapes, evoking perhaps the dawn of time. There are images of ‘primitive’ others, being themselves. There are scenes of rituals, particularly religious. There are shots of people meditating, praying, and working themselves into a frenzy: bouncing Maasai, whirling dervishes, Muslims milling at Mecca. There’s religious architecture, presented on a grand scale. We see squalor and sweatshops in developing countries and alienation in the modernised west. There’s St. Peter’s, a Calcutta landfill, Butoh dancers, an eclipse, slum housing, Utah’s Mesa Arch, burning oil wells in Kuwait, mountain tops, shrines, capsule hotels, Zen pebble gardens, prostitutes, and Varanasi funeral pyres. Baraka is a collage of extremes—the sacred and the profane, culture and nature, epiphany and squalor—with nothing in between. And it’s all set to music, ‘world music’ of course. Baraka is a trip—it’s National Geographic on acid.
Baraka is compellingly crafted, with high production values and spectacular cinematography. Shot in 70mm, the images are grand, rich, grainless. The film features long takes with slow, simple camera movements—mostly pans and tracking shots, with extensive use of accelerated and slow motion. It’s technically innovative: Fricke’s specially designed rigs allow time-lapse photography to be combined with camera movement. The eye isn’t directed by fast cutting. It can relax and take time to roam around the scene, as it might roam across a still photograph or reality itself.3 Baraka often seems like a sequence of dioramas.
Baraka is promoted as ‘a world beyond words’. While it appears documentary, it is not really interested in explaining things. It provides no voiceover, no intertitles, no dialogue, no contextualisation. It never tells us where we are. It neglects what is known about its subjects, preferring to offer them as mysterious, yet self-evident. A shot of a young androgynous Kayapo Indian staring, inquisitive but silent, from a leafy retreat restages, for us, the thrill of the unnamed—the ecstasy of first contact.4 Baraka offers all its scenes as moments of discovery.
Baraka’s ambition is seamlessness. It would put us in a meditative relation to the world, offering a virtual sacred, a generalised sense of metaphysical awe, not linked to any particular religious or philosophical value system.5 While providing a global grand tour, it breaks from the fragmented experience of the flaneur to promote a holistic reading of what it shows. It presents its odd scenes in a way that argues their interconnection, downplays their diversity. It is structured as a loose, cyclic narrative, beginning and ending with awesome scenes of nature. On the way the film reiterates and privileges the eternal, the repetitive, things that haven’t changed and won’t: the sun and moon as primal forces, rocks, big landscapes, life and death, ancient religious rituals. Everything included participates in a sense of profoundness or epic tragedy; everything else has been excluded.
Fricke cuts between different locations, different cultures, within a sequence as if they were part of the same action. His ‘Family of Man’ approach cross-references subjects, at the expense of their distinguishing features. Sometimes the cutting is plain bizarre. From men shoveling stuff into some furnace, their faces seared by the fire, we cut to the cold ovens of Auschwitz. While the sequencing of shots is important, the overriding logic of the film is accumulative. It follows rhyme more than reason. The viewer is prompted to make analogies between shots right across the body of the film, through links in subject matter and treatment. The images demand to be read through one another, as echoes or commentaries—Japanese snow monkeys bathing in hot pools are recalled by yakuza in a bath house. The film is like a crystal. Its images are offered as different facets of the same thing.
Baraka has been celebrated. The reviews gush with enthusiasm over its humanity, its beauty, its sensitivity. Its feel-good save-the-planet politics are politically correct in one way. But Baraka has also been criticised, for the insidious way it aestheticises and administers the excess of the world. It is true, Baraka is cliche-ridden and naive. It is incurably romantic, nostalgic for a return to the innocence of primitive origins.6 It traffics in the exotic. It idealises but silences its predominantly third-world subjects. It spectacularises and aestheticises the planet’s problems, making them seem inevitable, eternal, and profound—less problem than poetry.
Baraka demonises the capitalist west, of which it is a product. Fricke scores points against modern life. Shots of squalid high-rise tenements are followed by shots of a high-rise cemetery. (The city is death.) Fluffy chicks on a conveyor belt to the battery are juxtaposed with time-lapse sequences of westerners moving through revolving doors, turnstiles and stairwells. (Our lot may be the same!) Fast motion regularly characterises westerners as people in a hurry going nowhere. Trickles of yellow cabs in New York recall lines of insects fleeing threatened forests.
While Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) offered modernity as a joy to behold, something racy, ecstatic, almost spiritual, Baraka insists it is dehumanising, alienating, murderous. Fricke could have easily presented the production line—its organisation, processes, and rituals—as analogous to the religious rituals he clearly prefers, even to the technology of camera/projector, with its processing of frames, its gates and sequences, its industry of production and distribution. It is significant that he didn’t. Baraka never shows advanced technology working as a means to spiritual fulfillment, even though that’s what Baraka is trying to be. For Fricke, the motion-controlled camera is a magic carpet which might reimbue this world with wonder, with awe.
Donna Haraway coined the term ‘god trick’ to describe the way that new optical technologies offer the appearance of infinite vision the omniscient eye of god. Her examples include cameras, ‘cameras for every purpose from filming the mucous membrane lining the gut cavity of a marine worm living in the vent gases on a fault between continental plates to mapping a planetary hemisphere elsewhere in the solar system’.7 Clearly Baraka is anxious to work such magic. Its cinematography does not attempt to replicate a human point of view so much as offer a disembodied kino-eye perspective. The simple, effortless camera movements and the use of accelerated and decelerated motion suggest not a human p.o.v., a human experience of time and space. Rather its detemporalised and disembodied gaze suggests the omniscient eye of god, or, another old trope, the p.o.v. of some spirit compelled to wander the earth, which must bear witness but cannot intervene. ‘The western eye has fundamentally been a wandering eye, a traveling lens’, writes Haraway.8
While Baraka lingers on pre-modern god tricks, old technologies for evoking the infinite—whirling, bowing, and candles; devotional architecture; litanies, mantras, chants, and hymns—it exploits the cinematic apparatus as a parallel god trick. It constructs a cinematic trance, whirl, prayer—a technologically assisted utopia. The film summons up the infinite routinely—there is a machine in the ghost. Haraway is critical of god tricks. She is anxious to debunk claims to omniscience, the sense of a gaze being total, located nowhere but always already everywhere. She points out that the gaze is always embodied, is always some-body’s gaze. Certainly Baraka’s all-knowing kino-eye denies its politics, denies its situation within an economy, industrial relations of production and consumption. It colonises in the name of affinity—in the name of the spiritual.
Technological advance is often promoted as part of Progress: rationality superseding mythology and superstition. But technological advance could be understood in another way, as fashioning instruments to empower and amplify myth-making, allowing us to dream on an ever grander scale. While apparently critical of technological modernity, Baraka typifies a new-age utopianism that would happily harness high technology as a stairway to heaven. In this ‘Baraka’ perhaps has less in common with other feature films than with music clips. (Baraka could be considered a very long music clip.9) These days, music clips provide a key arena for technically-assisted dreaming. Unencumbered by the constraints of storytelling, clip makers regularly exploit magic of special effects to transport us beyond the daily grind.
The recent clip for Janet Jackson’s song Runaway could almost be a parody of Baraka. On a lazy, sunny day, Jackson jumps out of her apartment window. There’s a cut, and she’s walking down the phone lines. Then we’re off through a variety of locations: Great Wall of China, Easter Island, glorious waterfalls, Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower, the Sphinx—a tour of postcards. Once again, continuity editing collapses massive distances. Runaway is childish, naive, joyous. Jackson does risky things without danger. She runs up the Sydney Opera House, trots across the arms of the big Jesus in Rio. She perches on top of a smoking chimney, dives off skyscrapers, waterfalls, flying aeroplanes. Camera trickery and slow motion make her weightless. This is a daydream in which the body is freed of its normal limitations. Jackson’s lyrics and looks entreat the (male) viewer to come along for the ride. ‘Had so much fun around the world it’s true … the one thing missing was you.’
The clip is sexy. In the wing-walking scenes, in her ethnic fancy dress and accompanied by splendid girlfriends, Jackson becomes the ultimate Singapore girl: a great way to fly. The clip advertises and eroticises travel while pointedly concealing the risks and costs. Runaway, the movie, is a seductive sirens’ song. Kids, don’t try this at home! It speaks of a desire at the heart of Baraka. Runaway promotes itself as a patent fake—all special effects. The classic backgrounds have been dialed in and we know it. It was all mocked up in the studio using chroma-key and cutting, smoke and mirrors. Compare Baraka, in which there are no ‘artificially generated’ images. It says: ‘Look. This is real.’ While Baraka makes us forget we are sitting in a cinema, Runaway parades its mechanics. Watching Jackson caught within her virtual reality is like watching ourselves in a cinema absorbed into Baraka. Now we are onlookers, bracketed out of the technologically assisted joy ride, jealous perhaps that she ‘has the technology’.
Baraka epitomises much of the current moment. High technology provokes a desire to return to something simpler, to ‘primitive origins’. It also enables that desire. Baraka is like the holodeck in the new Star Trek, where virtual reality technology exists so Star Fleet personnel can escape the confines of their merely physical environment and enter a fantasy world. On the holodeck, they experience nature, play games, visit other places and moments, meet odd people, sail tall ships, and ride horses. It’s the ultimate theme park. As we reach the close of the twentieth century, technology has not freed us from the need to dream, the desire to run away. Rather, it helps us incorporate escape-experiences into a lifestyle we can’t and don’t really want to escape from. But that’s nothing new. Baraka proves that the panorama is still with us, while it anticipates the holodecks of the future.
Last night, I watched Baraka one more time, this time with a friend, seeking a second opinion. I asked, ‘If you won Lotto, where would you go?’ ‘Take me to Baraka’, she said.
[IMAGE: Ron Fricke Baraka 1992]
- Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
- Ron Fricke developed his approach as director of photography, co-editor, and co-writer of Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance (1982). He has directed two films for IMAX, Chronos (1985) and Sacred Site (1986). For Chronos, he designed a motion-controlled IMAX-compatible camera. Shot in eight countries, Chronos was a clear precursor to Baraka.
- Baraka’s aesthetics derive as much from still photography as from cinematography. This is most notable in shots offering persons as types—one Kayapo Indian, many Thai prostitutes, three Japanese schoolgirls—posed statically and statistically, as if they were having a still photograph taken. Such shots link Baraka with the social-typology projects of such photographers as August Sander.
- This is the hero shot most regularly reproduced in publicity, and has come to represent the film as a whole.
- Martin Roberts, ‘Transnational Geographic: Perspectives on Baraka’, in Postmodern Studies 29: ‘New’ Exoticisms: Changing Patterns in the Construction of Otherness, ed. Isabel Santaolalla (2000): 97–114.
- Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 189.
- Ibid., 192.
- Indeed, the film has been excerpted to create a clip for new-age world-music band Dead Can Dance.