In 1982, director and writer Godfrey Reggio, cinematographer Ron Fricke, and composer Philip Glass unleashed an experimental film project derived from the Hopi Indian word Koyaanisqatsi meaning “life out of balance”. The project began back in 1975 in St. Louis Missouri with only $40,000 and some 16mm film that would continue to span on and off till post production in 1981. Low on funds, the film caught the attention of director Francis Ford Coppola and it was with his additional funding that the film was able to be completed and released.
Just what is the end result known as “Koyaanisqatsi”? This is not so much a documentary in the ordinary sense of the word, but a free floating cosmic statement on the human relationship between nature and the increased saturation of man’s ability to control his surroundings. No dialogue is present nor is it needed. Instead, director Reggio uses images to convey the downward slide and its effect on humans in general. Fricke’s cinematography is a marvel to behold with time-lapse images, haunted faces, beautiful natural landscapes, and frightening modern terrain made by man. It’s a bold political statement that strikes right at the heart of the emptiness we are creating. The central image of this emptiness chills us with a face.
We cannot turn away. There is no place to hide. The strict order of life is thrown askew with our indifference to the world around us. Reggio and Fricke wields such power miraculously without words. The soul of the film belongs to Philip Glass, the world renowned composer who lends the repetitious and sumptuous score that lifts the film from just a series of jaw dropping images.
The director returned to his theme in 1988 with “Powaqqatsi” meaning life in transformation. Reggio concentrated on the conflict of third world countries of ancient customs with modern technology. Without Ron Fricke, Reggio captured wonderfully soulful images with Graham Berry and Leonidas Zourdoumis on this project. Again, with no words, the images flow across the screen with such balletic grace and exudes dignity to its subjects; the people of these third world cultures.
The music of Philip Glass on “Powaqqatsi” is one of his best. It mixes strings, percussion, and an ethereal chanting that sends chills. Image and sound are the hallmarks of cinema and Reggio once again makes a statement that stays with you long after you see it.
In 2002, director Reggio made his last film in the Qatri trilogy entitled “Naqoyqatsi” meaning life as war. Shot by Russel Lee Fine with music once more by the brilliant Philip Glass, “Naqoyqatsi” purports to detail the transition from a natural environment to a solely technological one. Reggio mixes digitally manipulated and enhanced images from a variety of sources, many layered to give one the impression of man’s continual building upon the shoulders of others. This is Reggio’s most experimental work yet and not entirely successful. It is worthy in its effort to assault the viewer with technological advances, but ultimately remains almost soulless in its delivery. Glass’s score is once again above the material to make this effort worth watching despite its flaws.
The two men, Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass deserve accolades for pulling off one of the most stunning experimental achievements ever depicting man’s relationship with nature and with himself. It is a testament to Reggio’s willpower in giving us another perspective on our way of life with all its triumphs and all its follies. The soul of the Qatsi Trilogy is the peaceful existence we yearn for that is possible if we just slow down. How many films can you name that strive for that kind of statement?
The Qatsi Trilogy is available on Criterion Collection label and currently streaming on FilmStruck.
(Director Godfrey Reggio [left] and composer Philip Glass)
“All things have inner meaning and form and power.”