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What Makes “Baraka” as Poignant Today as When It Was Released in 1993?

Roger Ebert said Baraka (1993) “is paced so we can contemplate the places we will never go, the places we are destroying, the places where we might find renewal. It is like a prayer.”

Baraka may be a nonverbal, non-narrative film, but that hardly means it lacks a story. What it communicates is the tale of a planet, its people, its cultures, and its spirit. It showcases the sublime vastness of the globe and its inhabitants, and the commonalities that span its lengths.

Baraka is an ancient Sufi word which can be translated as “a blessing, or as the breath, or essence of life from which the evolutionary process unfolds.” Baraka lets the Earth tell the story of its own evolution, emphasizing and converging the beautiful and destructive forces of nature and humanity. It suggests that understanding and healing of the self is linked to understanding and healing of the world as a whole. It is a film about transition and civilization—simply because a film about the Earth’s story could be nothing else.

The film refuses to give any cues to its location as it jumps across the planet in its imagery. There are obvious back-to-back scenes of different cultures, but the film is more concerned with what’s going on in a frame and how it relates to the juxtaposed scenes rather than where the footage originated. This absence of voice, text, or guidance renders the film immortal. People will forever be able to view Baraka in any year, any climate, any culture, and apply its mesmerizing images to the world as they see it. Anonymity of source ensures one will forever be able to draw modern connections and apply present-day themes to the material.

Concerns about the environment are growing every year. The consequences of human evolution on the planet’s resources is an ever-discussed subject, which makes a film like Baraka feel perhaps even more relevant today than it may have in 1993. The images the film shows haven’t changed; if anything, they have worsened. Detachment is expanding, and the implications of many of Baraka’s scenes are even more real. Especially because the film isn’t just about landscapes and nature, but about people and the way they are affected by human behavior.

One of the film’s more challenging moments to witness follows thousands of newborn chicks as they’re run through a system of mechanical conveyor belts and tubes, like Charlie Chaplin rolling through the cogs in Modern Times (1936). People toss the chicks into funnels, their wings clipped, their beaks burned, repeated endlessly by human machines whose occupation has sentenced them to forget they’re handling living animals. In the next scene, thousands of chickens are stacked tight in tiny cages, paralyzed by proximity, living life the only way they’ll ever know it. Moments later we see a sweatshop, with thousands of humans stacked tight in tiny workstations, paralyzed by proximity, living life they only way they’ll ever know it. The camera switches between shots of the chicks in the factory to ones of sweatshop workers, to people in cities, to the masses riding escalators and subways, and to taxis on the street. There’s a parallel to be made, and a suggestion towards the abandonment of nature when it comes to our own lives. We all want to save the earth, but we also love the conveniences afforded by our destruction of it.

Baraka was released in 1993; pre-internet, pre-e-commerce, pre-everything the way we know it today. The 2+ decades since Baraka’s filming have seen incredible change, and the film’s images strike chords that resonate easily with modern society. This is the subtle beauty of showing life in its most basic state—unless humanity somehow becomes regressive, connecting pure nature to our present state will always draw a contrast. With that being true, Baraka will forever remain relevant, poignant, and contemplative.