Counting Our Blessings
The Satya Interview with Mark Magidson
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 Barakas
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
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 totalityin 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. Its somewhat
amorphous and absorbing in a sense; its not a word that has an
exact translation, its broader or indefinite in a beneficial
How do you feel about Baraka now, nearly ten years after filming
It was an incredible experience to make the film, to be part of
all that. Its something that I know I wont do again in the
same wayits too hard. You have to make choices. At certain
times youre 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. Im glad I did it when I could
and didnt miss the opportunity.
How do you feel about showing the film to kids?
I would show it to kids; I think thered be a lot of questions
from them. Theres some fairly tough imagery and thats something
I would think about. Ive 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
that we structured into the film, such as organic imagerynature
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
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. Its sort of a balancing act to find a middle road that
allows it to provide an inner dialoguenot saying "the film
makers are saying this now."
Thats also one of the ideas behind the varied music score; theres
a lot of range in it. Its hard to keep viewers really interested
for that long and one of the things that helps is to have the music
change a lot. Thats 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 theres a spiritual intention for exploration
and, hopefully, its open enough for people to come away with what
they bring to it, and that doesnt have to be the same thing for
everybody. What the word "message" implies is that everyone
comes away with the same thingthat particular messageand
thats 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?
Its very hard to say. It changes. I like the closing sequence
of the filmthat five minutes that begins with a monk ringing
a bell in Kyoto, Japan and runs through time-lapsed photography of
desert night sky in New Mexico, and [finally fades to a] white screen.
In the book, which is your favorite photograph?
Theres a black and white portrait of a young woman at the
rag dump in Calcutta, off to the side, and theres 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 Im
really fond of, the oil fires and the aerial of the roadits
one of my better pictures.
What were the most memorable momentsgood 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,
theres 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
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 dirtythe smell of chemicalsand 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.
Theres something about still photographs thats 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?
Its hard to even say. It took so longseven 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. Anns
Press at (310) 842-8516 to order them directly.
Directed by Ron Fricke, Magidson Films, 96 min. Not rated.
it has been nearly ten years since the film Baraka was first
released, its well worth a revisit or a never-too-late initiation
for those who havent 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 Kabaathe house
that Abraham built for Godperforming the Hajj, the holy pilgrimage.
The camera focuses on a group of people touching and kissing a black
rockbelieved to be a meteorframed 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
beltthe 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
a Visual Journey by Mark Magidson (California: St. Anns Press,
1999). $50.00 hardback. 120 pages.
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 tribesmans 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. Thats 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.