Original release: April 29, 1988
Running time: 99 minutes
Director: Godfrey Reggio
Composer: Philip Glass
When we look back on our time spent on this planet, they can sometimes seem like a series of images, both still and moving. Fragments of memories recalled that flash by, along with half remembered moments and barely glimpsed events that somehow remained etched in our minds forever, yet assembled together they all tell stories.
Building on what he brought to the screen in 1982 with Koyaanisqatsi, filmmaker Godfrey Reggio returned in 1988 with Powaqqatsi, a film that formed the second part in his trilogy, with Naqoyqatsi arriving in 2002.
Taking its name from the Hopi word meaning “parasitic way of life” or “life in transition”, Powaqqatsi shows us the Third World cultures of Asia, India, Africa, the Middle East and South America caught in a conflict between the old ways of life and the new ways introduced by industrialization. Like his previous film, this one is also wordless, but with a musical score provided once again by Philip Glass using native, classical and electronic instruments from the countries visited, it has a strong story to tell.
The first images Reggio shows us are of men from a gold mine in Brazil carrying bags of dirt. It’s back-breaking work and the men are drenched in mud as they make their way with Glass’ joyous and tribal score accompanying them. From there the images then change to a barren landscape where a woman and child carry baskets on their heads. They walk against the elements through a wilderness that’s beyond our comprehension. The music becomes much more sombre and we start to get a feeling for how different Powaqqatsi from its predecessor.
Whereas Koyaanisqatsi showed us America using an array of cross-cutting techniques, time-lapse and high-speed photography, for this film Reggio has chosen a low-key approach, allowing us more time to absorb the images and sink into Glass’ soundscape. The result is a film that feels a lot more intimate and affecting.
Stunning aerial shots of Hong Kong reflect on the misery of urban existence while zooms of waterfalls, slow motion and long tracking shots of other countries all reveal something about how the people their express themselves through their work and traditions. By focusing on the contrast between mechanization and technology, as well as the growth of mega-cities and the effect it has on these vanishing cultures, Powaqqatsi is open to many interpretations.
While some may argue it’s an exploitative piece of filmmaking, others see it as a celebration of craftsmanship, spiritual worship, labour and the creativity that defines these cultures – and this is a view I’m inclined to agree with.
At the same time Powaqqatsi also confronts us with how beautiful our world can be; despite the march of machinery there’s still peace to be found in the eyes of a child and intricacy of a tapestry woven in Kathmandu. With all of this, Reggio also observes how these cultures move to a universal drumbeat that’s slowly being drowned out and replaced with the sounds of industrialisation as the rest of the world is forced, and is struggling, to catch up with capitalism.
As a film that chooses not to repeat the same messages as its original, Powaqqatsi is breathtaking in its scope, meditational in its approach and distinctive as a final product and part of a trilogy with many images and sounds that remain memorable long after they’ve faded on screen.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .