About half an hour into Samsara, director Lois Patiño gives us a frontrunner for the most ravishing shot of the year: a group of novice Buddhist monks in saffron robes walking before the majestic Kuang Si Falls in Laos. If the sequence is strikingly composed, that goes for the film as a whole. After almost an hour observing the monks and witnessing the final days of Mon, an old woman in rural Laos, we’re invited to close our eyes for around 15 minutes as coloured lights intermittently flash on a black screen and a soundscape takes over. We are accompanying Mon’s soul as it passes through the bardo [an intermediate state between death and rebirth] and into the body of a goat in Zanzibar, where we spend the film’s second half, in the company of a group of women seaweed-farmers.
As well as being one of this year’s most sonically and structurally striking films, Samsara – shot on 16mm – features location photography that is to die (and be reborn) for. Sight and Sound caught up with Patiño at last year’s London Film Festival, where Samsara played at a sold-out screening at BFI IMAX.
Tell me about the evolution of the interlude in Samsara, where audiences are instructed to close their eyes. At what point did that become a part of the film?
The idea of asking the audience to close their eyes came to me more than five years ago, before I finished shooting my previous film, Red Moon Tide (2020). At that time, I was not going to have any lights on screen; it was going to be a sonic experience with your eyes closed. A little bit later, I started to add light. I had different references for this: Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993), with its bath of blue light, was absolutely a reference – the use of light in its most essential essence. Then, in a more conceptual way, there were Stan Brakhage’s films where he painted on the celluloid, inspired by hypnagogic images. And as an artist of light, James Turrell, with his infinite fields of light. There are also several sound artists who’ve created experiences in which you have to close your eyes, and experimental filmmakers who work with flicker-flash techniques.
So I had all these references in my head. But I knew that for this idea to feel strong, radical and unique, it could not be an experimental film – it had to be a narrative film.
The lights really were blinding – almost punishing for viewers who declined your invitation to close their eyes. Was that deliberate?
I would prefer for people to close their eyes, but I know people have curiosity. The lights I use during that sequence also appear in the end credits, so for people who were obedient and didn’t see what was going on in the middle sequence, it’s there. I didn’t want to make it too beautiful, in case people who were peeking felt that they were missing something, but I couldn’t resist making it a little beautiful.
The flashes you mention weren’t to force people to close their eyes – it was more about exploring a perceptual, even neural experience. If you use one frame of light and one frame of darkness compared to five frames of light and five of darkness, it really changes the designs you’re seeing on the inside of your eyelid. The nerves of your eyes, even when your eyes are closed, are still very active in a way that you’re not used to. So I explored that at length.
Your previous two features were shot on the Galician coast. What made you choose Laos and Zanzibar as your focus for Samsara? Especially since Laos Buddhism is different from Tibetan Buddhism.
I needed a Buddhist country – Tibet was a no, and Thailand has Apichatpong Weerasethakul; I wanted to try to avoid comparisons, as I know I’m doing slow cinema and the inevitable links would be drawn.
Laos, in Spanish culture, is a mystery – we don’t know much about it; France has more of a relationship with it because it was a former colony. So I started to research, and came across Luang Prabang, the spiritual capital of Laos. It looked really interesting to me – I needed a Buddhist country to start entering into the Book of the Dead, which was the main point [of entry]. Laotian Buddhism is different from Tibetan Buddhism, particularly when it comes to reincarnation: in Laos, the official branch of Buddhism believes that reincarnation is immediate, and that there’s no bardo, which would have broken the idea of the film. But what I found when I went there is that everyone believes in a bardo, even if the official branch that is closer to the original Buddhism says that reincarnation is immediate…
As we reincarnate into the goat [in Samsara], the film tries to push the viewer outside of their cultural framework; in fact, it never stays in one cultural framework. We are with the Buddhists in Laos, but the kids in the temple school come from the north of the country – they are animists. Then we go to Zanzibar, where we have the Maasai, whose beliefs are different still. The idea of the goat was to help us step outside and think about the world from a different perspective – not just a human one, but an animal one.
The two halves were shot by different cinematographers: the first by Mauro Herce, the second by Jessica Sarah Rinland. What did you decide about the aesthetic of each half before filming?
Each of the cinematographers has a certain way of relating to reality, of observing things. Mauro’s is closer to mine, the way that I used to shoot movies; he’s more into landscape atmospheres in a contemplative, spiritual sense. This is only Jessica’s second feature as a cinematographer, and her first in a film directed by someone else; she works a lot with hands, and intimately captures the actions of hands. I like the intimacy that she brings, and wanted to connect that intimacy to the more landscape-oriented shooting.
The middle segment is a very ethereal, intangible experience. In Zanzibar, I wanted to touch things again and try to rediscover the world from a more innocent perspective. We take the perspective of a goat or a little girl. So it was more about trying to rediscover the sense of touch.
What were the biggest practical challenges of filming in Laos and Zanzibar?
The biggest challenge was to deal with the position of being a white European going to these places and try to portray their reality, their daily life, without trying to be invasive culturally, without our preconceptions and with as little exoticism as possible.
As a filmmaker, I like to bring beauty to the image. And this can sometimes take you closer to exoticism. So I don’t want to avoid recording the waterfall because it really is amazing, but the distance between making a postcard and creating an interesting image is very small.
So I took risks in that sense, and tried to avoid this presence of power that we have. There were just four of us travelling from Spain; the rest of the crew were local people. I slept days in the temple with the kids, and talked with them to understand their desires, their fears. The same in Zanzibar.
Also, at the same time, the film is not only about the Buddhist temples or Zanzibar; it’s gravitating towards something else. So there being some distance helped with approaching this supra-layer of the film – the sense of spirituality and different conceptions of it. In some ways, being a foreigner helped a little bit.
How exactly did you counter the risk of exoticism? Doesn’t the project risk flattening the differences between Laotian and Zanzibari spirituality?
I’m reflecting on this for the first time. That supra-layer of spirituality goes with my own sense of spirituality – not an original one, but something that is in the Bardo Thodol, reflected in the sentences that appear several times throughout the film: “Recognise every light as your own light; recognise every sound as your own sound.” This idea of being part of a wholeness – this concept of an oceanic feeling, developed by Sigmund Freud; like you’re a drop in the ocean – that is my conception of spirituality; it’s all around. It’s in the Bardo Thodol, it’s in Sufi mysticism, Islam and many other belief systems. Freud analysed it as the essential idea of the religions.
So there is a risk of flattening, as this spirituality is a layer that exists over both segments, but then there’s the relief of the different conceptions. In the Laos part, we tried to portray it in a deeper way. In the Zanzibar part, it’s in the background, but still important – like an echo.
What was it like working with the actors in the film – was it a mix of professional and non-professional actors? How did you make them feel comfortable in front of the camera?
The only professional actor was the old woman [Mon, played by Simone Milavanh]. Because of the local people’s animistic beliefs, it was very hard to find a local woman to play an ill person. We tried with several different women, but whenever their family or villagers found out, things got tricky.
It was surprisingly easy to make them feel comfortable on camera. When I was with them, learning about their culture, I was doing my own ‘secret casting’ – if I saw someone that would work nicely because they were, say, more eloquent, I would suggest to them that they appear in the film.
The editing proved a crucial part of the process in Red Moon Tide. What was your approach to the editing of Samsara? What effect were you trying to achieve?
I decided to shoot in 16mm primarily because I wanted to change my method. Of course, it’s a very spiritual film, so given the nature and texture of the light, I thought 16mm would be useful. But I also wanted to change from my usual method, which is like an accumulation of images. With Samsara, we had to be more precise: because there was a limited amount of film stock, we had to plan shots earlier. And that made the editing process much easier, because we didn’t have so many options: if it works, it works, if it doesn’t, you have to take it out.
► Samsara is in UK cinemas now.