(USA - 1988)

by Vanes Naldi

Cast: -
Genre: Documentary
Director: Godfrey Reggio
Screenplay: Godfrey Reggio, Ken Richards
Cinematography: Graham Berry, Leonidas Zourdoumis
Composer: Philip Glass
Runtime: 90 minutes

Powaqqatsi is not a story, it's the collective impact of the images that makes a statement on the audience . . . it's people and culture and tradition, not pretty images with music behind them." Ken Foster (Center of the Performing Arts, Director).

There are times when films or documentaries become something more, they go beyond, cross a line. After abandoning any narrative intent, any attempt at political, social or religious propaganda, those works simply become experiential. They become experiences that, with the help of sounds and images, connect with our mind and create a different message in every one of us because we're all different. We get a different message based on our backgrounds (religious, social, political, and environmental), but we feel emotions. As a result, Godfrey Reggio's Powaqqatsi might the most explicit example of a love it or hate it masterpiece. How you react to it depends not only on how you interpret the images and sounds, but also on how you feel about them. I can't guess how it will effect you. As a mere film fan, I can simply give you my view on the experience. I can talk about WHY this is an even better experience than Koyaanisqatsi, and why Godfrey Reggio might be the most effective visual communicator of our era, but you need to see Powaqqatsi as soon as you can.

Powaqqatsi (Powaq=sorcerer, Qatsi=life) is Hopi Indian for an entity, a spirit which consumes life in order to further its own. This might make you believe the film is another strong message against the industrialized world sucking life out of the "Third World" to further its own well being. You'd be right, and wrong. That is certainly one aspect that will emerge from viewing Powaqqatsi. However, it's also about the will, courage, and tenacity of a population in a disadvantageous position (like most of those in the Third World) to continue to progress, dedicate themselves to a better future, and consume their lives to further that of those who will follow them. The film is also about the fact that, trying to progress technologically, populations living in the Southern Hemisphere are losing their tradition, their culture, eventually their souls. They have been living a hand-made, simple and ordinary life, based on orality as method of communication, for centuries. Now, seduced by "progress" and "development", they're destroying this entity, this way of life that was built inside of each and every one of them, to further their own will for technology. Being this the second of Reggio's QATSI trilogy, Powaqqatsi is almost an opposite to what Koyaanisqatsi shows. It's about a disintegrating life too, but in a different way. It's quite an ambiguous message if you think about it, touching totally different matters, but it eventually goes back to the meaning of the title.

The technique used by Reggio differs from Koyaanisqatsi, focusing on slow motion, extreme close-ups, lots of cross fades, and time lapses (there's an impressive one with a destroyed car in the middle of a highway, while "phantom" cars pass by the side like spirits). There's also more focus on humanity, facial expressions, feelings, and suffering. There are different views of people staring at the camera, each one with his own uniquely interested look. Reggio feels that people living in non-industrialized worlds are more interesting to portray because they express interest in the camera; they see something new and want to explore, like a cat put in front of a mirror who is shocked by the sight of this alien object. They aren't ego-driven, just posing for the camera like people in the industrialized world do. They're moved by curiosity, not vanity.

The film totally violates the norms of proper thought because it caters to every view you want it to try to express. In a sense, it's provocative: it requires your mind to form its own view of the product. It isn't a clear-cut message-driven opera like Koyaanisqatsi; it's more of a hymn to life, something that showcases the truth in a more effective way. Stripped of any dialogue, manipulative plot, political reason, and incorrect interpretation by the actors, we see REAL people and real LIFE. There isn't a single thing that is put together just to elicit contempt. It's not a tearjerker commercial spot to ask people to support the dying children in Africa. It isn't one of those "social progress" manifestos that try to catch your heart, or should I say your wallet, before your mind. Powaqqatsi tries to catch your real feelings. The provocation, the search for your own message is generated by the way the images are portrayed.

I've come across different people having different views on the meaning of this "film." Some disliked it because they said Reggio basically stooped to the level of the people he was criticizing, exploiting the Third World to explain his message. Some loved it citing the reality, the passion Reggio finds in "primitive" populations. In the end, beyond hatred or love, what remains is the experience, and nobody can deny this artwork generated a strong feeling, that the images suggested something in his head. Nobody will say Powaqqatsi didn't move them in some way. Whether you enjoy it or not is just a matter of different backgrounds, different views, DIFFERENCE.

The cinematography, as always, is stunning. This time, instead of focusing on god-like views of earth or virtuous mixes of technology and raw life, the film focuses on human expression, on emotions, and on the creations of these people. There are aerial shots of different buildings, of incredibly creative buildings, showing the difference and the creativity level of the people who built them. The images don't have any arbitrary meaning or goal. Some are brutal. Some are beautiful, for instance, a row of kids laughing and staring at the camera. In the overall context of the film though, these images help build Reggio's ultimate goal, if you want to call it that, showing the power and the beauty of human spirit.

I wasn't a big fan of Philip Glass until recently. I knew his awesome work in Koyaanisqatsi and a few of his very good operas, but I never believed he would compose something like he did here. More than ever, this is the perfect connection between music and sounds. Instead of focusing on synth-driven sounds, the frantic and frenetic repetitions of Koyaanisqatsi, the score for Powaqqatsi is way more melodic. He adds touches of ethnicity, like the great percussion for the scenes filmed in Africa. It borrows from the subcultures depicted in the film and intertwines them perfectly to form greatly impact the viewer. In a way, Philip Glass is like a new age Ravel: his minimalism induces almost a hypnotic state that leads to meditation. Stripped to bare bone sounds, simple melodies like the sublime Bolero, there's a Rossinian Crescendo of emotions that all explode toward the end and offer your feelings something. In Powaqqatsi, there's an intense use of brass instruments (horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, and especially exquisite use of French Horns) that's perfect for giving tone to and sustaining the percussive themes.

Reggio has been accused of being an activist filmmaker, of trying to cash in on the "new age" preservation craze. He's just an anarchist in love with his planet. He shows the beauty and the extreme contrast, the brutality. He pulls no punches and has no ulterior motives. Powaqqatsi doesn't show any ideology or further one's belief; it's just a stimulus. It goads your mind trying to generate, to provoke thought about what you've seen. I think the only way to fully understand what Reggio is going for is if you like me (at least I hope :)) don't subscribe to any particular political, social, or religious ideology. Some people love it or hate it based on how they've been "trained" to react; their preconceptions and prejudices have already been shaped by societies upbringing. I'm probably too much of an anarchist to feel offended by or particularly love anything about the messages I find in this film. However, I'm able to understand and to tell you how incredibly effective the images and sounds challenge your mind to come up with a message. It has many different meanings and can make you feel different emotions. You can hate it or love it, but it will impact you so strongly, and that's why it's such a great masterpiece.

Credit: Michael Dare's interview with Godfrey Reggio.


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