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August 2000
Baraka: Counting Our Blessings

The Satya Interview with Mark Magidson



In 1992 the remarkable film, Baraka, was released to critical acclaim and audience approval. Using images and music, Baraka is a non-verbal cinematic experience. The project was seven years in the making and led the filmmakers to 24 countries. Mark Magidson was Baraka’s producer as well as its co-writer and co-editor. Last year Magidson published Baraka: A Visual Journal, a collection of still photographs that he took while on location for the film. Magidson recently spoke with Catherine Clyne, sharing his thoughts on Baraka and his photographs.

How would you describe the film Baraka?
Through imagery, the film shows the diversity of the way people approach spirituality, religion, life and death, the struggle for survival and so on. The goal was for the viewer to have an inner journey, and the absence of both dialogue and commentary was intended to leave space for an internal dialogue, and allows the viewer to be guided by the music and the imagery. The content and the structure is meant to explore the life experience in its totality—in a shortened, limited way obviously, when you have only an hour and a half.

Why was the project titled "Baraka"?
The word "Baraka" is used for ‘blessing’ or as an expression [for the breath or essence] of life. It’s somewhat amorphous and absorbing in a sense; it’s not a word that has an exact translation, it’s broader or indefinite in a beneficial way.

How do you feel about Baraka now, nearly ten years after filming took place?
It was an incredible experience to make the film, to be part of all that. It’s something that I know I won’t do again in the same way—it’s too hard. You have to make choices. At certain times you’re able to do things and at other times not. I have a family now and to do something like that is too disruptive to your personal life. So it was a very special time. I’m glad I did it when I could and didn’t miss the opportunity.

How do you feel about showing the film to kids?
I would show it to kids; I think there’d be a lot of questions from them. There’s some fairly tough imagery and that’s something I would think about. I’ve shown parts of it to my two and a half year old, though at some points they are too young for it to register.

How did you go about choosing the places you filmed?
We did a lot of research ahead of time, mostly through photography books or National Geographic. There were a number of categories of imagery that we structured into the film, such as organic imagery—nature without man. There is also a category of images of people in prayer. So, from an efficiency standpoint, [when planning the itinerary,] we would try to go to locations that would give more than one kind of image. For example, in Nepal, we could shoot the mountains and landscape, and also shoot images of people in prayer or monuments.

Is there an environmental or social message in the film?
There is a point of view in the film but we were conscious of trying not to make it "messagey" and take away from an inner experience, making it more of an intellectual experience. Obviously you are making editing and sequencing decisions and you have certain feelings associated with them. It’s sort of a balancing act to find a middle road that allows it to provide an inner dialogue—not saying "the film makers are saying this now."

That’s also one of the ideas behind the varied music score; there’s a lot of range in it. It’s hard to keep viewers really interested for that long and one of the things that helps is to have the music change a lot. That’s the challenge in a film like this, to make it interesting for that much time.

Is there a spiritual aspect to Baraka?
I guess you could say there’s a spiritual intention for exploration and, hopefully, it’s open enough for people to come away with what they bring to it, and that doesn’t have to be the same thing for everybody. What the word "message" implies is that everyone comes away with the same thing—that particular message—and that’s something that we are trying to avoid. But certainly you want to come away with a feeling or a sense of spiritual exploration.

What is your favorite sequence in the film?
It’s very hard to say. It changes. I like the closing sequence of the film—that five minutes that begins with a monk ringing a bell in Kyoto, Japan and runs through time-lapsed photography of the desert night sky in New Mexico, and [finally fades to a] white screen.

In the book, which is your favorite photograph?
There’s a black and white portrait of a young woman at the rag dump in Calcutta, off to the side, and there’s a group of women that are bent over; I love that shot. I was lucky to get it as it happened really fast. There are a couple of aerial [photos] of Kuwait that I’m really fond of, the oil fires and the aerial of the road—it’s one of my better pictures.

What were the most memorable moments—good and bad?
It was a great experience to meet people in different countries and work with them. I still have friends in different countries that I correspond with or see occasionally. We were working long hours, so there’s a bond with people, even though you were with them for only a week or two, that have lasted over the years in some cases.

Some incidents stay on my mind. Engine failure in a small plane over the Amazonian rainforest when we were shooting the Kayapo Indian tribe; I still remember that sinking feeling. There was also a memorable moment at one of the temples in Cambodia: [the discovery of live] landmines while filming.

How did the crew manage to film the burning oil fields in Kuwait?
It was really easy once we got there. The [Kuwaiti] government was very supportive. They wanted to show the devastation of the countryside and have it publicized. They provided a helicopter and all the helicopter time we wanted; we were able to fly around for three days (they were actually American helicopters and pilots working there as contractors). It was so dirty—the smell of chemicals—and every day you looked as though you had been standing under an oil shower.

You say at the end of your book that the publication of your photographs "fulfills a need that continued long after the film was released." Could you expand on this?
I had a body of photographs that [I took while] on location and I felt that it was something that I wanted to express in that form. There’s something about still photographs that’s very different from film; you can stay with an image as long as you want.

Overall, how has the entire experience changed or affected you?
It’s hard to even say. It took so long—seven years. It was such a wonderful opportunity for me to expand and understand the world and its diversity and how local my focus had been by comparison. I had traveled a fair amount before the film, but nothing like this.

Visit your local video store or bookseller to find Baraka on VHS or DVD, or to purchase the book; or contact Magidson Films and St. Ann’s Press at (310) 842-8516 to order them directly.

Film Note

Baraka, Directed by Ron Fricke, Magidson Films, 96 min. Not rated.

Although it has been nearly ten years since the film Baraka was first released, it’s well worth a revisit or a never-too-late initiation for those who haven’t seen this unique film. Filmed on location in 24 countries, Baraka is a "wordless" meditation on the earth, an exploration of the natural beauty of places, of creaturely experience, of human spirituality, of birth, life and death, and of suffering and prayer.

"Baraka" is the Arabic word for the Islamic concept of blessing, also sometimes translated as "essence." Many Muslims believe that one can receive blessing by touching sacred things. In Baraka we see millions of pilgrims in Mecca circling the Kabaa—the house that Abraham built for God—performing the Hajj, the holy pilgrimage. The camera focuses on a group of people touching and kissing a black rock—believed to be a meteor—framed in silver and gold. By touching this celestial rock and circling around the Kabaa, believers are said to be blessed by being in such close proximity to the divine.

Watching Baraka we can feel blessed, touched by the images we see. We can also feel cursed. The camera unflinchingly shows the beautiful and the terrible in rapid motion: Rivers of busy people blur by in major cities; then the screen cuts to a battery egg hatchery where thousands upon thousands of eggs and chicks are "processed" via conveyor belt—the females separated from the males. For those selected to live, beaks are singed off by workers on the production line.

The effect of images juxtaposed one after the other is very powerful. For example, going from one tradition to the next, images of the warring parties of Jews, Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem, praying in their holy places in such close proximity to one another somehow suggests that all humans are spiritual creatures, regardless of religion, culture or nationality. Segments go by so quickly that you simply have to release your intellect and stop trying to analyze what you are seeing and where in the world everything is. Just ride with the flow and meditate on the earthly condition in all of its beauty and horror.—C.C

Book Note

Baraka: a Visual Journey by Mark Magidson (California: St. Ann’s Press, 1999). $50.00 hardback. 120 pages.

Baraka: a Visual Journal is a collection of black and white and color photographs from around the world, taken by Mark Magidson on location during the filming of Baraka. Represented in this book are the many moods and images of the film, from beautiful to disturbing. It seems that no subject or corner of the earth was out of bounds to the camera.

Magidson knows when to choose color or black and white. The lines and contours of pyramid steps, paddy fields, and a memorial of human skulls are emphasized in shades of light and dark; while fire, stained-glass windows, and a Kayapo tribesman’s face paint are deservedly displayed in full color.

The one-sided pages, although seemingly wasteful, enables what I think is a great use for these pictures: carefully remove your favorite ones and display them in frames. That’s in no way meant to belittle their value; it is their attractiveness and profundity that makes you want to do something with them, to have them out there on display as a frequent reminder of the diversity of this fascinating world. —A.S.



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