The Qatsi Trilogy: Celebration and Warning

On Film / Essays — Dec 11, 2012

Released in 1983, Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi numbers among the more remarkable debut films in American cinema history. The nonnarrative feature with a mysterious title provided an intervention into normal moviegoing, but despite its refusal of character and plot, it was and is engaging and often awe-inspiring in its depiction of American landscape and cityscape. Indeed, Reggio’s commitment to transforming the familiar into the visually fascinating recalls the Lumière brothers’ first films. Koyaanisqatsi quickly became an art-house hit as well as a popular presentation at colleges and universities, and it remains well-known among a cine-wise, environmentally concerned younger generation. Beautifully photographed by Ron Fricke, Koyaanisqatsi is accompanied by a Philip Glass soundtrack that has had its own considerable life. The success of the film opened the way for two more: Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002). Each of the Qatsi films is a meditation on a different dimension of modern life, and together they offer a celebration of the magnificence of both natural and human creation, as well as a warning about how much is endangered if we fail to find a more effective balance between nature and technology.

In the trilogy, Reggio’s reliance on such unusual techniques as slow-motion aerial photography and stop-motion shooting creates a contemplative experience that is quite distinct from conventional cinema. In some considerable measure, this approach seems a result of the unusual road that led to Reggio’s career as a filmmaker. From the time he was fourteen until he was twenty-eight, Reggio lived an ascetic life as part of the Christian Brothers, a strict Roman Catholic community. His adolescence and early adulthood were spent in silence, fasting, and prayer—though over the years, Reggio gradually became disaffected, as he told me in an interview:

One of the vows you take as a Christian Brother is to teach the poor gratuitously. That was the original spirit of the brotherhood, though that spirit is long since gone. There were all sorts of rational and “correct” reasons why the brothers were not able to teach the poor: it wasn’t practical; if they did teach the poor, they couldn’t sustain their lifestyles. In fact, almost all the children in the schools where I taught were middle-class kids, and yet I lived in this community [Santa Fe], where about 40 percent of the people had no access to primary medical care and where the barrio was being eroded out from under the poor. There was great social disintegration . . . So there was a huge community of poverty, and I felt drawn to give some kind of assistance if I could.

Reggio’s concern led him to cofound a facility that provided medical care to disenfranchised communities in Santa Fe; an organization to aid juveniles in Santa Fe street gangs; and the Institute for Regional Education, a media collective that produced a series of nonverbal public-interest television spots. He worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to combat governmental invasions of privacy and the use of technology to control behavior. And in time, he came to see filmmaking as a potential means for transforming consciousness about the inequities in his community and around the world.

From the opening moments of Koyaanisqatsi, it is clear that Reggio’s focus is something other than romance or adventure; near the beginning, we see what appears to be a rocket liftoff, followed by serene aerial shots of remarkable western sites and stop-motion imagery of cloudscapes. Having created a sense of the grandeur and dignity of the Southwest, Koyaanisqatsi then reveals industrial exploitation of the environment, shifting into highly kinetic time-lapse photography of urban scenes. These sequences demonstrate the remarkable degree to which the modern city-machine functions effectively—traffic zooms along New York City streets and Los Angeles highways; products get made and the day’s work gets accomplished—but ultimately, Reggio’s visual phantasmagoria suggests that the primary product of modern industrialized life is the destruction of individuality and serenity.

As he worked his way from a 16 mm short to the eventual 35 mm feature (which angel financing made possible), Reggio was seeing more films and recognizing distinctions between commercial cinema and what he was attempting to do:

In my films, I try to eradicate all the foreground of traditional film and give the background the principal focus. I was trying to look at buildings, masses of people, transportation, industrialization as entities in and of themselves . . . Same thing with nature: rather than seeing nature as something dead, something inorganic, like a stone, I wanted to see it as having its own life-form, unanthropomorphized, unrelated to human beings, here for billions of years before human beings arrived on the planet . . . I was trying to show in nature the presence of a life-form, an entity, a Beingness; and in the synthetic world, the presence of a different entity, a consuming and inhuman entity.

At the conclusion of Koyaanisqatsi, on-screen text explains Reggio’s title (formed from elements in the Hopi language, koyaanisqatsi means, “1. crazy life. 2. life in turmoil. 3. life out of balance. 4. life disintegrating. 5. a state of life that calls for another way of living”), and he returns to that early shot in the film: the rocket lifts off, lofting into the sky—where it explodes, its fragments tumbling slowly to earth.

Each Qatsi film is introduced by a particular metaphor. The subject of Koyaanisqatsi is the ever-more-frenzied way of life that threatens to rocket us into oblivion; the subject of Powaqqatsi is the third-world labor that makes modern society possible. That film’s spectacular opening shots focus on hundreds of men working up and down the steep walls of the Serra Pelada gold mine in northern Brazil. While viewers will be appalled at this exhausting labor, the strength and stamina of the men are impressive, even exhilarating; they are beautiful to watch, often reminiscent of classic statuary. The sequence suggests that the men and women in the Southern Hemisphere who do so much of the world’s dirty work are like Sisyphus in their unrelenting toil and like Christ in the sacrifice of their lives for others (at its end, several workers carry an injured or exhausted man up the mine wall in a manner that evokes the Crucifixion and the Pietà). Of course, the kind of labor we are watching has been part of human societies for millennia—it is what raised the pyramids and the Great Wall of China.

Powaqqatsi’s kinetic opening sequence and title card are soon followed by a fifty-two-second shot of two women carrying huge bundles on their heads in the early-morning mist. The Glass accompaniment emphasizes the quiet grace of their movements, which have the impact of a miraculous dance. Powaqqatsi goes on to take us from one location to another, presenting consistently remarkable slow-motion imagery in extended shots that allow for contemplation of the variety and beauty of individual laboring human beings. Leonidas Zourdoumis and Graham Berry were the cinematographers, and Philip Glass’s score provides a somber, respectful lyricism.

Many of Powaqqatsi’s most memorable shots involve children. Early on, an eighty-seven-second tracking shot pans across the faces of dozens of African boys and girls: their varied reactions to the camera are lovely and compelling, and the myriad physical and psychological differences among them offer a critique of conventional cinema’s frequent use of third-world characters as types. One of the most electrifying shots in the film—really a single extended shot divided in two—is of a small child walking along a highway toward the camera, a huge truck approaching him from behind. At first it appears as if the truck might hit the boy; when it does finally pass him, he disappears in a cloud of dust. The shot seems to end. Then, after much other imagery has intervened and most viewers have probably understood the child’s disappearance as a metaphor for the destruction of childhood by the circumstances of industrialization, Reggio returns to the shot: the thick dust is dispersing and the boy is still walking, unscathed and seemingly unaware that anything unusual has occurred. The moment is transformed into a metaphor for the strength and resilience of third-world children and for their ability to confound our assumptions. The forms of labor Reggio depicts in Powaqqatsi may be ancient, but the laboring world is also full of youthful energy.

The imagery in Powaqqatsi is arranged into an overall montage punctuated by sequences that explore particular themes, within a trajectory that moves generally from rural to urban scenes. While the pervasive use of montage in American television advertising functions as a polemic for ever-greater levels of consumption (of products, of film images per minute), Reggio’s montage is as serenely paced as his individual images. It demands that we meditate on individual human beings in those sectors of the world where life is governed by the patterns of consumption we and others like us have set in motion—the patterns revealed by the time-lapse imagery in Koyaanisqatsi. One might object that Reggio himself is using a high-tech industrial process to mount his challenge to industrial society, but as he has said, “No Immaculate Conception is taking place . . . I see myself as a cultural kamikaze, as a Trojan horse, using the coinage of the time in order to raise a question about that very coinage.”

Powaqqatsi was shot in multiple locations, primarily Brazil, Egypt, Hong Kong, India, Kenya, Nepal, and Peru. Indeed, along with Peter Watkins’s The Journey (1987) and Ron Fricke’s Baraka (1992), Powaqqatsi was part of a move during the waning days of the cold war to use modern filmmaking techniques to take account of the diversity and interconnection of the world’s peoples.

Like koyaanisqatsi, powaqqatsi is defined only at the conclusion of the film—as “an entity, a way of life, that consumes the life forces of other beings in order to further its own life”—confirming Reggio’s implicit call for a global transformation in the interests of humanity and the environment. But powaqqatsi can also be understood as a comment on the cinematic experience itself—after all, Reggio is a sorcerer: if his interest in exoticizing the familiar and familiarizing the exotic recalls the Lumières, the brilliant use of slow-motion, time-lapse, aerial, and telephoto photography in his films ties him just as fully to Georges Méliès and the invention of film magic.

While Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi focus on the social, psychological, and spiritual impacts of the evolution of industrial development over the past two centuries, Naqoyqatsi is a reflection on the immense, ongoing transformation of global experience that has culminated in the arrival of digital technologies. The grimmest of the Qatsi films, it was Reggio’s attempt “to have the courage to be hopeless,” as he says today. Fittingly, the formative metaphor of the film is the Tower of Babel, as depicted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in one of his 1563 paintings of the biblical story—the opening image of Naqoyqatsi. In the story, God sees humanity’s quest to maintain unity and achieve the divine by building a tower to the heavens as a threat, both to the well-being of the earth’s people and to his own dominance, and he foils their plans, scattering them across the continents and frustrating their ability to communicate by forcing them to speak myriad languages. In the world of Naqoyqatsi, viewers are lost in the maze of visual “languages” that have arrived with the panoply of modern technologies dedicated to investigating people, engaging them in meaningless communication, selling them an endless supply of products, distracting them with spectacles, and facilitating their violence against one another. The title’s translation—again revealed only as a conclusion—confirms this: naqoyqatsi means, “1. a life of killing each other. 2. war as a way of life. 3. (interpretation) civilized violence.” Naqoyqatsi evokes various dimensions of our ever-more-virtual world by recycling and refashioning materials from commercial and technological sources. Within the darkness of this virtual “light,” only Philip Glass’s elegant score provides an echo of hope.

Over the past thirty years, the Qatsi films have regularly offered audiences cinema experiences that are full of visual and auditory pleasure but go well beyond the goals of conventional entertainment. If most movies are fundamentally propaganda for the status quo, reconfirming what we understand about the world and what we believe, Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi offer a sustained plea for a deeper and more active concern about the costs of our reckless exploitation of the natural environment and the labor of people around the world, and a warning about the dangers of the culture of distraction we are surrounding ourselves with.