Seeking rehumanization

Industrialization cast in villain’s role

Published: Mar 29 2021, 01:01:am

Friday, June 10, 1988.

POWAQQATSI. Co-written by Ken Richards. Music by Philip Glass. Co-written and directed by Godfrey Reggio. Running time: 98 minutes. Rated Mature with the B.C. Classifier’s warning: "occasional nudity."  
THE ONLY THING NOT obvious about Powaqqatsi is its title. A coinage spliced together from two Hopi Indian words, it means something like "an evil entity that feeds on the lives of others."
    Powaqqatsi — pronounced poe-WAH-khat-ski — is the sequel to the resolutely obvious Koyaanisqatsi  (1983). It reunites director Godfrey Reggio with composer Philip Glass, and together they've created another 98 minutes of cerebral wallpaper, an experimental film "experience" that uses cinematic high tech to promote an anti-industrial message.
    Koyaanisqatsi made Reggio's reputation as the New Age filmmaker. A non-narrative epic, it consisted of visuals suggesting that industrialization and urbanization are bad, bad, bad, while unspoiled wilderness is okay.
    Avant-gardist Glass provided a score designed to connect with the filmgoer’s bio-rhythms, "induce meditation" and produce "a drugless high." A cult success, it induced Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas to come aboard as Reggio's "presenters,” and Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus to sign on as distributors.
    With such backing, he had the luxury of a six-month, 12-nation shoot for Powaqqatsi, the second in a projected trilogy of Qatsi pictures. In it, he takes his original point — development is bad for the land — and argues the obvious corollary: it's bad for people, too.
    In Koyaanisqatsi, he used the gimmick of speeding up his visuals. Here, to prove his versatility, Reggio slows everything down, stretching about 20 minutes of realtime imagery into feature length.
    In his pursuit of the authentic, he uses pictures shot, for the most part, in the tropical Third World in nations such as India, Nepal, Egypt, Kenya, Brazil and Peru. We see people labouring at subsistence agriculture and food gathering, and involved in celebrations of nature and their oneness with the land.
    For contrast, we're shown scenes of open-pit mining, urban crowding and industrial ennui. The winners in the world ugly architecture contest are offered as proof of the dehumanizing effect of cities.
    What bothers me is that Reggio's quest for the authentic doesn't extend to sound. Instead of the real voices, music and environmental noise of the people pictured, we get Glass's interpretive score — music designed to drive home the picture's already heavy-handed message.
    As it pounds on (and on and on), I found myself wondering if there are not enclaves of Caucasian peasant purity somewhere. In what amounts to reverse racism, Reggio implies that natural nobility is an attribute exclusive to non-whites.
    What results is a sincere, if thuddingly simple-minded, attempt at consciousness-raising

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1988. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi franchise became a trilogy with the 2002 release of Naqoyqatsi (pronounced NAH-koy-KAH-tsee), which we are told means  “life as war.” Philip Glass continued his collaboration with the director, and contributed its orchestral score. Together with Terrence Malick, Reggio is the executive producer of 2021’s Awaken, a Qatsi-like documentary scheduled for release in April on a number of video-on-demand streaming platforms. The new movie is the work of Tom Lowe, an editor and cinematographer who worked as a second-unit director on Reggio’s 2012 feature Visitors. Reggio, who turns 81 today (March 29), is currently working on Now, a feature focused on the baneful effects of communications technology on the world’s children.
    “Facebook, and all the other ones (social media and tech corporations) . . . are the terrorists, really,” he said in a recent interview with the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “Because they come in sheep’s clothing. They promise one thing and do another. They’re full of all of the talk, wanting nothing but goodness for everyone. And then enslaving everyone for the god of money and power.” The man’s not wrong.

See also: In 1982, Godfrey Reggio released the first feature in his Qatsi trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi.