step back
descriptions after watching Lois PatiƱo's Samsara (2023)

A gradual sweep of orange robes. Young faces in meditation. A buzz-saw, or mosquitos, returning on the audio stream.

A boy crosses and recrosses the river, helping an old lady die. He reads her a Tibetan book, says it's a book that has to be read to you; you can't read it to yourself. There's a connection between the boy and the old woman, but we're not sure what it is. Not quite family. Something else. He cares about her. We start to care about them. We sense he's worried they won't finish the book in time.

This is a story in which elders tell stories - about golden deer living in caves beneath waterfalls, landscapes refigured by earthquakes, everything changing forever, lights of different colours appearing in the Bardo, leaving the bodies of the dead in the forest, checking each day to see whether or not they've been claimed by the animals.

It's difficult to establish who the main character is. At one point, we believe the main character to be a goat, but the focus is always shifting. You're never entirely sure who you're supposed to be watching, so you watch everyone.

From his temple, a young monk watches the boy crossing and recrossing the river in a boat. I suspect he is attracted to him, but there is no evidence for this. One day, he asks the boy to take him and a small group of fellow novices to Huang Si waterfall. They travel, in silence, downriver, leaving us to watch the ripples left in the wake of the outboard motor. The sounds of the water and the valley are dialled down.

At Huang Si, the monks walk barefoot in the pools and the spray, doze in the shade, play rap music to one another on their phones.

The young monk suggests we look closely at a tree bowed over in the stream and the dappled light. He says we should try to see through the tree, to see into its very being, so that we might understand it more fully. He says that the day is hot, but the water is cool.

Every time someone drifts off to sleep, they are overlaid with shimmering patterns, sequined shapes and contours of the waterways. We don't know who or what we're seeing.

The young monk we think might be the main character wanders off into the forest. We could be watching a dream, or not. He comes across an elephant, alarmingly close, a vast and magnificent being with ruddy patterning on its forehead and the sails that are its ears. The young monk is unharmed. When the other boy comes to find him, he says nothing of the elephant. The significance of that encounter is known only to him. This is the last time we see him.

A phone call. The old lady has died. The boy rushes back upriver as the purple evening comes down. There is no one else in his boat; he has left the monks behind. I can't help but wonder what becomes of them. We never find out. Night isn't far away. We know there are animals in the forest.

At the bedside of the deceased the pink mosquito netting ripples like the river beyond the window. The boy reads the final pages of the book, then closes his eyes. We are invited to close our eyes too. We follow the old woman into the beyond. We are told that this will be a long journey, but that we will be safe. Whoever or whatever we're following knows the way.

We wake in a coastal zone, where the women harvest seaweed and the men auction off dripping bundles of squid at the market. The closed-eye journey that brought us here should be experienced rather than described, but there was thunder, flashing strobes, dismebodied voices and drones.

Here, on our new coast, a newborn goat becomes our focus. We watch as it gets let by a string, petted, named, then forgotten on the beach. It nibbles everything it finds. It bleats.

All beings here struggle, in one way or another. The seaweed farms are being choked by chemicals from hotel pools. The market fish are cold and bloated. The crabs held up by children on the beach are fragile. The Maasai no longer have the land needed to honour the traditions of their ancestors. Even the starfish that gets patted by the children looks vulnerable beneath their playful, clumsy hands.

The baby goat, forgotten on the beach, goes wandering among the mangroves as dark comes in. Dark comes in again. We're reminded of its cycle. Someone whispers the goat's name, but we suspect it can't hear, and we don't know if it will ever truly be found. It ends up in a sandy cave, climbing the walls, unsure of where it is. We've followed various threads to get this far. We leave with a sense of being.