Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi: Commentaries by the Filmmakers

Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass discuss their film Powaqqatsi (1988) and the other films in the Qatsi trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Naqoyqatsi (2002)

Transcripts from “extras” on the 2002 DVD releases of Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi, MGM Home Entertainment and Miramax Home Entertainment

(passages discussing the process of making the film have been deleted)

I think some people, when they see something that doesn’t fit the template that they’re used to applying, they want to blame the filmmaker. They think it’s the filmmakers fault. I’ve never been that way. I try and open my mind to fit the art instead of trying to chop down the art to fit my mind. I think it’s important that we have movies like Naqoyqatsi at least available to people because even for some people if it turns out to be too far over in one direction, I think it’s important to know: Well, where is that line? What is too far? Somebody needs to be out there sort of charting this territory where few people go, and a lot of people that go don’t come back. I think it’s really great to have somebody out there kind of pushing the edges a little bit.
- Steven Soderbergh, commenting on his involvement as a producer of Naqoyqatsi

It’s not the effect of technology on society, on economics, on religion, on war, on culture, on art. It’s that everything now is existing in technology as the new host of life. It’s the price we pay for the pursuit of our technological happiness. That is what warfare is. It’s way beyond the battlefield. It’s total war. It’s war as ordinary daily living.
- Godfrey Reggio, director of the Qatsi trilogy

Steven Soderbergh and Godfrey Reggio:
brief comments on the films

Godfrey Reggio:

In this film the aural presence is co-equal with the image. Philip Glass has a much deeper relationship. He’s involved with the concept. He’s involved with coming to the cinematography, seeing what we’re doing, seeing it as it comes back in rushes, viewing it in the studio, talking to me ad nauseam, me writing him all kinds of madness about what I think the shape of it should be. He has to deal with me and my struggling through words to tell him what I’m feeling. So he’s already a patient man, and gets high marks for that. And then it’s not like we do the edit and then he responds with the music or that he does the music and then we respond with it. It’s like a hand-in-glove operation. It’s one medium motivating the other.

See the interview here

Using a high-tech base to do this is the only way to do it. I mean, it has to go into a theater whether it’s analog or digital. It’s all very high-technology, so I don’t feel it’s contradictory or hypocritical to use the very medium that you’re questioning. In fact, I think it’s appropriate because I’m not exempting myself from this criticism. I mean, this is something involved with all of us that we’re only beginning to see, so I use this medium because it is the medium that can reveal the subject most clearly. In a way, if you want to use a metaphor, it’s like using fire on fire. It’s like walking a razors edge. It’s this and that, rather than joining the purity league of “it must be this way, and if it’s not you’re bad, or you’re the devil”—Manichean stuff about enemies all over the world, and we’re the good. Life is not that way. Life is more complex. It’s a mixture of all of this and that.

The utopia of the technological order is virtual immortality, heretofore only ascribed to the gods, to the divinity. Now we have a new pantheon. The computer sits in the middle of it. The computer, not being a sign, is the most powerful instrument in the world in that it produces what it signifies. It produces this globalization. In that sense, it is the highest magic in the world, and something that we’re all in adoration of, and that’s what these films are about. What this is is an attempt, like at the hour of death, to rise above yourself and to see yourself in another context, and this context is this technological order.

Powaqqatsi, again, in its compound meaning: a way of life. Powaqqa is a black magician, an entity that eats the life of another person, that consumes the life of another, in order to advance her own or his own life. Powaqqa operates through seduction, through allurement, not through the obviousness of “I’m coming to get your heart!” or something like that. In other words, not like a horror show, and powaqqa, when it’s joined with the word qatsi, means a way of life that consumes another way in order to advance itself. So, the film Powaqqatsi is about the southern hemisphere; Koyaanisqatsi, the northern hemisphere—hyperkinetic, industrial, technological grid. Powaqqatsi, the southern hemisphere, cultures of orality, people who have a hand-made living of tradition. So it is the point of view of the film, meaning in terms of its making—what you get out of it is your point of view—that our world, in some way the southern world, is being consumed by the norms of progress and development, that when we talk about people, saying, “Well, gee, in Africa their standard of living is not as good as ours.” Well, who is to say that? Who is to say that a standard of living is predicated on having a house, going to school, having medical care, and this kind of food? Now, I’m not making a virtue of poverty, which I was accused of for this film, of romanticizing poverty and oppression and suffering. No, I was trying to say that there are other norms, standards that are different from ours. Again, part of this homogenization is taking the same standard for everyone.

So this way of life, which to me is the future of the South, is the very thing that’s at risk the most today. It is the most fragile because it is the most human, and it’s the most human because it is still human beings and smaller groupings, through their own cultures, coming up with the differentiation in the beauty of life. It’s that that’s at risk in Powaqqatsi.

It’s not about going to the tepee, or the being romantically involved with the with the past so that we can return to this utopian idyllic Rousseauean idea of the past. That’s gone and it’s not there. That’s not real. We have to deal with the present. So the present puts us in this conundrum of no exit out from this new universe that we’ve been put in—the technological order—that really we know nothing about. Nothing. We do not know the effects of the cathode ray tube on human maturation, for example, and yet all of us have grown up in the light of that cathode ray tube which is like a gun aimed right at your body, and we all know that growth occurs through light. We’re cyborged. We’re already cooking in the stew.

We were there with, I think, at that time something like 40,000 people in the pit. I was with the cinematographer, Leo Zourdoumis. We were watching. We had the camera pointed on a group of men that was snaking up from the bottom. I would say, if had to put it in skyscraper terms, they were coming up to about the 60th floor on a building, from the base way down. And all of a sudden we saw a man hit on the head with a rock, and my cinematographer said, “Well, what do we do? Do we help him?” And I said, “You don’t dare move because we’ll cause more problems running out to help him. These people know what to do.” They immediately picked this guy up, put him over their shoulders—two of them—almost like the Pieta—I mean, from my reference. And they carried him up dutifully. They were halfway into the pit. They carried him up to the top of the pit and I was employing my sentiment: you just stay right on your job and you film that event, and he caught it.

For 99% of the images that you’ll see in these films they are “catch-as-catch-can.” They are engaging the subject, taking your chances, not setting it up, being there waiting for it. You come with a point of view etc. In the case of the shot of the young boy in Luxor, because the truck had already gone by and the equipment wasn’t set up, we asked the young boy if it would it be okay to shoot him as the next truck came by, and he said “just fine,” so he waited and then continued his journey to his home. But in all cases, in mostly all cases, these are engaging the subject. It’s not telling the subject what to do, where to be, setting it up so that it looks like a certain thing. It’s done in the spirit of documentary engagement of the subject.

Integrity was changed with evolution and modification. Three happens to be my quintessential, deep number, let’s call it, so that resonated beautifully. Everything... all the scripts I do are in three. Three is the matrix of my deliberation to get somewhere, to create something. It sounded great. And it was at that moment, with the momentum of starting to realize what this other film was feeling like, that we decided together to do a trilogy. The other two are films where you shoot the image. You go on location and then you edit it with a minimum of effect, and it’s all about perfecting the moving image that you acquire that you take this.

This film, Naqoyqatsi, the location itself is an image, so we relocate on to the virtual. We relocate on to the iconic. In this case, those images that describe the world in which we live. And then we revivify them, re-animate them, change their motion, color, speed, layer them, paint them. So what we’re going to end up with is a tableau of painted images that are iconic in nature. What we will be doing is re-contextualizing those iconic images, and in that sense, we’ll be questioning the venerated familiar in this film, Naqoyqatsi. Naqoy means war, to kill another, to take the life of another. When you put it together it means a life-way of war, a life-way of killing. That’s its etymology. My commentary to that, as I’ve done with the other films, is that the war that this word describes, is a war beyond the battlefield, a total war. War as ordinary daily living. Again, that’s something that’s hard to see when you’re inside of it—war as a sanctioned aggression, or sanctioned terror against the force of life itself. I would summarize the whole meaning of the word to be encapsulated in the shibboleth “civilized violence.” Animal submission: this is what Naqoyqatsi is about, and its subject is the global world. So Koyaanisqatsi: the world of the North. Powaqqatsi: the world of the South. Naqoyqatsi: the globalized moment in which we find ourselves.

Well, the next logical step is the release of this upcoming film [Naqoyqatsi], and then the release of the Qatsi trilogy as a body of work, but what it means for me personally after the trilogy, I don’t really know. I’ve never, remarkably I guess because of my being a brother, a Christian brother years ago... I was always taught not to think of the future. Live in the present and let God take care of the future. Well, whoever is taking care of it, somehow I ended up with a good or bad habit of not thinking about the future. Some of my friends think it’s pretty stupid, actually, but I feel much more free that way. And yes, I have a number of ideas for other projects, and I hope in the next few months to be embarked on them.

I can’t pretend to change someone’s view. Let me be even clearer. Let’s say, hypothetically, if you knew what the answer was—the answer for the world, because some people feel they do, you know, they have a universal answer. By the very fact that it is itself universal, is itself fascistic for me. How boring the world would be if it had one flower, and one terrain, and one language, and one way of doing things. It would deny the very existence of what this world is, which is a mysterious unity held together through the web of diversity. In effect, the shibboleth of this world, if I could be so bold, is “Divided we stand.”

Panel Discussion: Naqoyqatsi: Life as War
New York University Panel Discussion with Jon Kane (editor), John Rockwell (interviewer, New York Times Arts and Entertainment Editor), Godfrey Reggio (director), Philip Glass (composer), Miramax Home Entertainment, 2002

Link to the video of the panel discussion

John Rockwell: The first two films depicted or set up an alternative between a simple, natural, or primitive, or communal, or however you want to describe it. It was natural, open space in Koyaanisqatsi. It was people living their lives in a third-world fashion in Powaqqatsi, and juxtaposing that with modern civilization, with a fair degree of implication that the modern stuff was bad, that it was frenetic, that it was a succubus-like attack on the southern part of the world. There was a lot of implied criticism of the way the world works, and yet the films... and one of the things that made them so alluring, was how beautiful they were. Now we have a situation in which there is a film which is extremely critical of, or at least calling into question, the nature of a highly-networked, global, technological universe, using the most advanced technology it can use. So how do you respond to this sort of disjunction between criticizing the world through beauty and criticizing technology through technology?

Godfrey Reggio: Well, if I didn’t have to go through this process, then it would be an immaculate conception, and this stuff could be put out, and I wouldn’t have to deal with that.

Jon Kane: We tried to do with woodcuts. Remember? But it couldn’t hack it.

Godfrey Reggio: I’ll try to make this brief, but I want to be clear about something. I entered film not because I wished a career in film. As I told you, I didn’t go to a film school. I wasn’t prepared in that way. I entered it for a passion to manifest something, not self-expression, but to seek a truth about something, not the truth but something that was very passionate, and I realized early on, “What would be the whole point of this if I’m just going to end up showing this to a few of my friends in Santa Fe?” Or going to a museum, if I were lucky to get into a bad one. If we wanted this to be available to people, it was going to have to be in, as it were, the language or the vernacular of the moment we’re living in. And while what John says is certainly true about Naqoyqatsi, it’s equally true with all of the films. There’s a very high-tech base used to make these films. In the case of Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, the actual below-the-line cost in equipment... we used more equipment than Out of Africa used, for example, with you know, computer boards that ran the Arriflex cameras etc. So to make a film and not use technology is to try to have an immaculate conception. So I’m trying to answer that. I don’t want it to sound like a rationalization, but we had to embrace the very thing that we’re criticizing, consciously. We had to be willing to embrace a contradiction—that we’re using a tool to criticize the very thing that we’re making it with. In the case of Naqoyqatsi, the very subject matter of the film is the manufactured image. In this film, there’s a completeness that wasn’t in the others, in that the subject matter of Naqoyqatsi is itself the production tools that made it. So that’s a very contradictory thing, and I think some people see the films as apocryphal as a result of that. Now that’s a point of view, so if that’s what someone feels, fine, but one has embrace these tools in order to make this kind of film. My own feeling is that beauty somehow can offer us an insight into truth, so in all of the cases of these films, we’re looking at, as it were, the beauty of the beast, and to see it in a totally depraved or humiliated state would not be to do it justice because all of us are in some way worshipping at the trough of these beasts that these films try to portray in some way.

John Rockwell: I think my last question, before we throw this open, is to what extent is there a—and I don’t mean this in any doctrinaire sense—to what extent is there a religious basis to these movies? I don’t mean whether they fulfill the doctrine of some religion, but Phil has been a Tibetan Buddhist for years. Godfrey was in a Catholic order for many years, and you know that’s one, presumably, explanation of the fascination with trilogies, but I mean, to what extent is this... People like Marx or any of the 20th century post-Marxist philosophers had all kinds of criticisms to make about modern society, but one senses in these films a kind of moral and ethical criticism and, is it a profitable line of questioning to wonder about the kind of spiritual underpinnings of these movies?

Philip Glass: Well, what’s interesting about the question is that it goes well beyond film, and this particular activity of making these films. It goes to how we value our lives and how we value the time we have on this earth, and how we are going to spend our time. I think that’s really what I’m hearing in the question. The film definitely... these works I think definitely address that, and I think they are critical on that level in a much deeper way than they are on the mere question of tools and procedures. The thing that’s interesting for people of our age is that we can remember the world before television, and I remember the world before the second world war. I can remember living in New York City when on a summer night we would walk down from 110th Street to Times Square. It was in the 1950s, and if it was a warm evening people would decide to sleep in the park, and there were many people sleeping in the park. And it was considered quite safe to do so. So the thing that’s been very dramatic for Godfrey and for myself is the profound transformation of the world that we live in. So questions of these kinds can arise. They sometimes get very complicated, and you get into the questions of cloning and questions of what activities are moral and not moral, and when it comes down to it, what it looks like to many of us is it has to do with human development in maxima and ensuring the possibility of the continuation of our species, especially when you get involved with children, which many of you haven’t had the opportunity to do yet. You begin looking at the world again very differently because you begin looking at the world that these children are going to grow up in, which may be a world which you may no longer be in, so I find that not only with this group of people, but I find generally people in the arts world and any world that is involved with social issues and social change... and what we’re talking about in this film is social change and the quality of and the way we live our lives. This has become an urgent question. This is no longer a theoretical question, which it might have been when Godfrey and I were 20 years old, but these questions are extremely urgent, and I would say further that it’s not to say that these films are meant to provide an answer at all. I think that one of the ways of looking at the film, for example, is this. We had a screening last night and I looked at it this way. I looked at it in a different way than I had looked at it before. I kind of leaned back, and I had my eyes half-closed, and I looked at the images, and I kind of disconnected my brain entirely. And I just let the images flow into me in a certain way, and it was extremely interesting. It became almost... I was able to, in a way, apprehend the state of the world. By that I mean our social world, the world that we live in as a society, in a way that I hadn’t really done before when I looked at the film in terms of such questions as: Was it cohesive? Did it make sense? Do the movements follow each other? I didn’t do that at all. I dropped that. Godfrey and I talked about that endlessly for years, but I dropped that entirely and began to look at it just in terms of: Was it a mirror of the world we lived in? Then it became even a more interesting exercise when I looked at it that way. And then the question is: What did I think of that world? And so I think maybe that’s enough without going into details, but I think these are the ways that I was looking at it, and certainly the social issues, personal issues, even spiritual issues, if you will, are inescapable when you look at the kind of canvas that this film is presenting to you.

John Rockwell: Godfrey, do you want to address that?

Godfrey Reggio: I’ll try to be brief. For me, the answer is definitely it is for me a spiritual event, and let me explain. As a young brother, I didn’t get to see much film. It was considered not appropriate, but I had the chance to see a film that actually provided me with a spiritual experience like I had never received before, and it’s the film by the great Spanish master Luis Buñuel called Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones, The Young in the Damned) and I used that film actually to organize street gangs into a family in New Mexico. I had people from my age to eight or nine years old that would beg me almost every week to go see Los Olvidados again, so I bought a copy of this film. It was like going to church. And I was so moved myself by that personal experience that I had. It was not about entertainment. It was someone using an art form of the 20th century to touch the souls of people, and I saw it. I experienced it myself, and I saw it palpably among the young people that I was working with, and that motivated me, in a different way of course, to go into that as a medium, to make that deep connection to people, not as an entertainment form.

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