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When Making “Baraka,” What Was Ron Fricke’s Approach to the Film?

Ron Fricke’s filmography is one of cinematic brevity. Having served as cinematographer and editor on the famous nonverbal film Koyaanisqatsi (1982), he followed that charge by directing a couple documentary shorts including Chronos (1985), a nonverbal IMAX documentary. After his work on Chronos, Fricke designed an IMAX-compatible camera with the capacity to shoot motion-controlled images, a revolutionary concept in the IMAX industry. He then upped the ante and created Baraka (1993), a planetary odyssey filmed in 26 countries on 6 continents, shot across a time span of 14 months.

As Spirit of Baraka writes, “Ron Fricke is a meticulous filmmaker who has mastered a wide range of skills. This versatility allows him to carefully sculpt his films during each phase of their development. He immerses himself completely in every stage of production, wrestling with the broad philosophical concepts that underlie his films, designing sophisticated equipment, framing each shot as if it were a painting, editing and color timing the finished print.”

Baraka, which emphasizes not “where” but “what’s there” in its composition, is a kaleidoscopic journey across the Earth that encapsulates time, place, and culture. It compiles scenes of natural life, human activity, and technological development. It juxtaposes the beauty of organic existence with the impressive magnitude of progress, often highlighting the perplex and never-ending conflict between the two. The goal of the film, according to the filmmakers, was not to make statements, but to allow the viewer to have their own inner experience. As as transcendent, meditative picture, each person can find value in meaning in different segments of the film.

Fricke shot Baraka in 70mm Todd-AO format, a high-resolution widescreen format invented in the 1950s, making Baraka the first film produced using the stock in decades (and, as of this writing, the last). Spirit of Baraka continues, “Baraka is a journey of rediscovery that plunges into nature, into history, into the human spirit and finally into the realm of the infinite. In order to capture the exquisite rotating star fields in the film’s finale, Fricke designed and built a more flexible and complex version of the (65mm) 70mm time-lapse camera he designed for Chronos.” The camera was able to pan, tilt, dolly, and time-lapse all at the same time, allowing him to fill Baraka with brilliant slow-moving time-lapse images. (Now, the film has the distinction of being the first feature scanned at 8K resolution, rendering the footage in immaculate clarity never before seen.)

Much of Baraka’s content was un-planned in its acquisition. The crew would pick locations and simply start filming. He told in70mm, “We just go out and shoot the heck out of everything, so it’s as much planning as you can do. We have a scenario we work with, you know, sections of the film. But [then] you just get out there and start shooting! A lot of time we had to hide in the van and shoot out a secret little window to get the shots of kids in the streets, and people we wanted. And then a lot of times we’d re-enact the scene. We’d see it the day before, and then we’d come back the next day and get everybody in the same place.”

Sally Gao writes, “What sets the film Baraka from the rest of the independent films in Hollywood is that it uses unique film language to bring the truth out of humanity and modern civilization. With the use of cinematographic techniques such as close-ups, zoom-ins, and long shots enhance the way the film is presented.”

The end result is something unique in construction and presentation, which still resonates as relevant and captivating decades after its release. Roger Ebert added it to his Great Movies list, saying, “If man sends another Voyager to the distant stars and it can carry only one film on board, that film might be Baraka.”

Ron Fricke has only made a couple films, but they are films of power and authenticity that showcase care and craftsmanship.