Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

A cinematic treasure: Reggio’s Qatsi-trilogy

I know, I know. I’m on about film again. It’s sort of inevitable, if one happens to be sharing some of one’s film treasures on DVD with one’s friends in an intimate holiday atmosphere, and in a place as beautiful as the little village of Greyton into the bargain.

Here, exploring the indescribably majestic mountains somehow manages to create a receptivity to other beautiful things, such as exquisitely crafted cinematography, on the part of people, hence my taking the gap, as it were, by treating them to what must be among the most unusual films ever made — Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi-trilogy, which I would like to recommend to readers of TL as well.

It is probably a fair guess to say that relatively few people are even aware of the existence of these three films, all of which are sans dialogue, consisting of only a series of visual images — sometimes stunningly beautiful, sometimes shocking — to the accompaniment of Philip Glass’s haunting music. The fact that there is no dialogue or voice-over narration does not detract from their power. On the contrary, it enhances their effect on viewers, whose thoughts are not swayed by the words of any commentator.

This is pure cinema, where the unfolding sequences of audiovisual images play themselves out, first and foremost, at the level of holistic, affectively charged, right-brain reception. Small wonder that, when I have shown them to students as part of a course on Deleuze’s philosophy of the cinema (especially to expose them to what he calls the ‘cinema of the time-image’), some of them were so forcefully moved by them that they could not hold back their tears.

In my own judgement the first of the trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi (Hopi language for “a world out of balance”, or “crazy world”) is the most powerful of the three, despite having been made in the 1980s (the other two dating back, if I recall correctly, to the early 2000s). The film is framed by an opening and closing sequence of a rocket taking off, burning fuel and bits of metal showering the launching site in the beginning, and the rocket exploding in mid-air at the end, the camera tracking a grotesquely shaped, sporadically burning chunk of metal , by which time it strikes viewers irresistibly as a fitting image to conclude what may perhaps be described as a cinematic exploration of the effects of technology on nature and on society.

Immediately after the opening sequence in Koyaanisqatsi, the scene changes to a 17-minute sequence of serene land- and seascapes, the natural beauty of which is often breathtaking. Ron Fricke’s impeccable cinematography, carried out in the course of several years (a veritable labour of love on his, Glass’s and Reggio’s part), situates viewers visually in nature as it must have appeared to our hunter-gatherer ancestors — majestically imposing, but at the same time sufficiently implacable to have evoked their lasting, superstitious veneration.

The natural scene-sequence comes to an abrupt end with the introduction of human harnessing of nature’s power in the form of images of explosions throwing tonnes of soil into the air, followed by one of a gigantic truck gradually being enveloped in a cloud of black smoke. Slowly images of the technological transformation of nature, including one of the tell-tale mushroom cloud marking a nuclear explosion, make way for sequences of cityscapes — impressive corporate buildings alternating with dystopic images of dilapidated, neglected tenements, before they finally start focusing on the movements of the human denizens of cities, as well as of motor cars.

Especially the night sequences of accelerated car-movements, visible as moving lights, are strikingly beautiful at a purely formal level. These are exemplary of Deleuze’s “cinema of the time-image”, in so far as they are “aberrant” movements (not encountered in ordinary, human-eye-centred perception), which introduce time as that which underpins the possibility of movement, instead of vice-versa, as Aristotle believed. Significantly, in so far as the acceleration of moving images assists one in perceiving them at a purely formal level — instead of lapsing, willy-nilly, into seeing them in representational terms, as one is naturally inclined to do — Koyaanisqatsi establishes a kind of equivalence between the nature-sequences and the urban ones: in formal terms, they are no different from each other.

But at a representational level things change dramatically, as shown graphically in especially the composite image of a billowing mushroom cloud in a desert-scape, in the background, framing the foregrounded image of a cactus, which bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the nuclear mushroom. What is different here is that, the formal resemblance between these images notwithstanding, their representational meanings could not be more diverse — in the one case nature’s power technologically harnessed for purposes of (military) destruction, in the other, an image of nature’s indomitable life, surviving even under the most inhospitable of circumstances.

And throughout the film the transfixing image-configurations are borne, complemented and enhanced by Philip Glass’s music, now impossibly light and then imperiously strident, as if seamlessly fused with the visuals. Just how much force lives in music is demonstrated by the image-sequence of huge jetliners taxiing down the runway, accompanied by the ethereal lightness of a choir singing. Glass’s genius lies in his ability to compose music which embodies the rhythms of both nature, social and industrial movements, or perhaps rather the indissoluble bond between natural cadences and those of the human world, which we cannot dismantle at will, even if at times (judging by this film) we seem hell-bent on doing so.

All in all, Koyaanisqatsi leaves the first-time viewer rather dazed, if not shattered, by the sheer, irresistible power of the way that Reggio has harnessed Fricke’s cinematographic images and Glass’s music. His talent at employing the “time-image” through slow-motion, accelerated montage and panoramic shots leaves an indelible impression of precisely what the word Koyaanisqatsi means: a world out of balance, or a crazy world. The images of alienation and existential emptiness reflected, almost without exception, in the faces of the individuals in shopping malls, at stations or in the streets, unavoidably leave viewers with the feeling that, in the transition from living in close proximity to nature, to living in big, increasingly impersonal urban spaces, something essential has been lost, regardless of the technological gains in comfort and convenience. (And that is the reason why, according to someone close to me, some people absolutely have to move to Greyton, where unspoilt nature is never far away …)

The other two members of the Qatsi-trilogy — Powaqatsi (“life in transformation or transition”) and Naqoyqatsi (“life as war”) — are constructed in much the same way as Koyaanisqatsi, except that the contrast between nature and the social, technological human world is not as trenchantly drawn as in the latter film. Although, overall, my personal favourite is Koyaanisqatsi, the musical soundtracks of the other two films are more beautiful — so much so that listening to their music on CD, even in the absence of the visual imagery, is a very satisfying experience. Perhaps the soundtrack of Naqoyqatsi, which features Yo-Yo Ma on the cello, is the best of the lot, although the main theme of Powaqatsi is not to be sneezed at.

Powaqatsi addresses the theme, again through audiovisual image-sequences without any narration or commentary, of the effect of technological development on so-called Third-World countries, particularly on ordinary, mostly unskilled workers, while Naqoyqatsi — the most disturbing of the threesome — uncovers the extent to which human society is shot through with relentless bellicosity and competition at all levels, not only in the shape of outright war, but in the world of sport, of business, the media and so on. In short, human beings are always engaged in acts of aggression, even in personal relations. This is Hobbes, Freud and Foucault — all of them thinkers who dwelt on power and violence — with a cinematic vengeance. But the difference is that, in Reggio’s films, this and other themes are presented through images intertwining such irresistible beauty with such poignant pain, futility and emptiness, that experiencing them becomes an unforgettable memory.

  • Erik

    I am amazed that this commentary on Reggio’s work has drawn such little attention. Could it be a silent comment on just how limited the spectrum of interests of average thoughtleader readers really is? Bert has done the Qatsi movies justice in this analysis, brief as it may be. As a Norwegian student of film, it is invaluable to me, the more so in light of the references to Deleuze. Thanks Bert – keep them coming. Not many people provide such thought-provoking stuff as you do.

  • Luddite

    I do admire you as a philosopher but will have to agree to disagree with you as to the artistic merit of film. I am afraid I see no real merit in it at all.

  • Eriferi

    @ Bert. Do you think that a movie like Koyaanisqatsi could play a role in spreading awareness of the global eco-crisis? If your students were as receptive to it as you say, is it not partly because the nature images, followed by the ones of city life, can only have that kind of impact because of their awareness that the humans shown in those impersonal cities are like a virus destroying nature? I doubt whether audiences would have reacted to the film in this way when it first came out in the 1980’s. When I first saw it, I was very emotional, and after watching the second one (Powwaqatsi) immediately afterwards, I could not help crying during the first long scene of the mine workers carrying those bags up a steep slope – and all that suffering for the sake of profit. Godfrey Reggio should be given a Nobel Prize for bringing these images to audiences. It is just a pity that so few people ever see these movies.

  • Jan

    Thank you for this. It peaked my interest and I shall try to get to see these films.

  • Bert

    Erik – Thank you. I’m glad that you find this piece meaningful and useful. If you are interested in Deleuze and film, you probably know his two profound books on cinema, besides which the secondary literature on his work is growing. I have published a few academic papers on his film-philosophy, too, including one in the SA Journal of Art History, about 2 years ago, which was titled something like “Beyond Kierkegaard’s aesthetic and ethical models for art” (if my memory serves me right).
    Eriferi – A perspicaceous remark, about Reggio and the eco-crisis. It is spot-on. In fact, I have referred some of my students to especially the first one of the trilogy for that reason. And the scene in the mine at the beginning of Powaqatsi is very powerful indeed – Glass’s music makes it all the more poignant, in particular the sequence where some of the workers carry the (presumably) injured one up the slopes as if he is lying on a cross (with its obvious religious reference, but this time in relation to the god of capital, to whom this poor soul has been sacrificed).
    Jan – I hope you can get hold of them – you will probably have to order them. A handy website for this is
    Luddite (Premesh?) – you underestimate film, despite your luddite bias against images. Do you know Benjamin’s essay on ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’? You should read it again.

  • Nico

    Thank you Bret,
    The trilogy is a true treasure.

    I also enjoyed Ron Fricke’s other work like Baraka and I am eagerly awaiting the release of Samsara next year.

  • Dave Jackson

    I have to disagree with ‘Luddite’. What elevates this film out of clever entertainment and places it squarely on the level of good art, is this: Reggio makes you think, comment, change your view, re-evaluate your precepts. Koyaanisqatsi has the clout to get you off your wishbone and do something different. It’s the most powerful indictment of man’s self-destruction through greed that I have ever seen. It’s not comfortable art; it’s ugly, but pure and raw, breaking forcefully through the weak white noise of political and social exhortations to re-use our bath water. Every scientist, engineer, advertising executive and politician should be exposed to this message. Frequently.
    I’ve not seen the rest of the trilogy and am curious to see how Reggio can add to this message without diluting it.
    I was last moved to this extent when ‘Africa Addio’ was screened in the 60’s. We applied no new learnings from that film; I fear our greed is too entrenched to expect new policies based on this one. Copenhagen? Nice little junket.