“KOYAANISQATSI” (1982): Life out of balance

Poster of the film.

Koyaanisqatsi means in Hopi language -spoken by one of the First Nations, or native peoples, of the United States- “world out of balance”. The word giving title to this film gives an exact idea of its contents: the environmental and human chaos and disaster caused by the technology of modern Western societies. It’s an ecologist film, the best ever done, according to many people. But no need to jump to conclusions: it isn’t an educational documentary, its director doesn’t act indignant in view of the terrible state of the world, doesn’t indoctrinate about what one should feel and think. On the contrary, the interest of this film lies in its open nature, in its being a poetic work.

There’s no plot, no narrative structure, no character or presenter or anchor to guide us. The only word uttered is, precisely, Koyaanisqatsi, which is repeated time and time again in one of the soundtrack pieces. All the rest is electronic music and long takes which contrast American desert landscape (omnipresent in the first twenty minutes, and reappeared in the last five) and urban and technological world. Although its images are telling enough to lay bare director’s view -affliction due to Koyaanisqatsi-, the honesty and artistry that convey his vision aren’t intrusive. Different landscapes are shown in such a way that viewer has to ask him- or herself what is he or she seeing, an to take stance. That is why the film is a work of art, not propaganda or advertising. As the film-maker said in an interview, Koyaanisqatsi doesn’t aim to transmit an idea, but to create and experience. Doubtlessly, this approach is much more effective, and gratifying, than the didactic discourse characteristic of the typical ecologist documentary.

Koyaanisqatsi aims to create an experience, not to transmit an idea.

Godfrey Reggio made his debut as a film-maker in 1982 with this movie made over the course of six years, which would become the first part of the Qatsi trilogy, completed with Powaqqatsi (“transforming life”) and Naqoyqatsi (“life as war”). In its final part it had as a producer the film director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Appocalipse Now and other masterpieces). Reggio surrounded himself with an excellent director of photography (Ron Fricke) and the composer Philip Glass, who created a minimalist, repetitive, obsessive electronic music fuse perfectly with images with different heights of intensity. But the pith is Reggio’s vision, which gives raise to a magnificent film uniquely visual and musical, with the only aim to produce a deep effect in the spectator, respecting his or her freedom. A reflexive film which obliges one to meditate on it or just leave it. Due to its artistic achievement, is highly advisable to watch it in the big screen.

The first part -around 30 minutes- is made of serene aerial images of the sea, the sky, clouds, and Monument Valley, the desert in the frontier of Utah and Arizona, inside the Navajo reserve, best known for its role as setting  of many westerns. Takes are so long, with the background of Glass slow and persistent music, that spectators used to action and rapid plot will get disconcerted. Deliberate air, water, and rock images last minutes. One has to look at them with an involved attitude, plunge in images, in the film experience. After those 30 minutes of natural visions, man and technology burst in. There are oil pipelines, blasts, mines. Takes and music get faster.

Monument Valley desert.

There’s no plot, no narrative structure, nor any personage or anchor to guide us.

Some images separate natural and industrial world: those of big, rickety apartment blocks being demolished with dynamite. And inmediatelly after we see the urban space, with its endless traffic jams in Los Angeles, crowds in avenues. Put in between, big planes, factory interiors. The technology part of the film finishes with slow-motion images of a NASA rocket exploding in the air, and we see its fragments falling. Impossible not to interpret metaphorically the failure of this launch: it stands for the pride and fall of Western technological society.

Demolished buildings.


Planes, cars, and motorcycles: the technological zoo.

This ending could make us think that Koyaanisqatsi is, after all, a didactic, exemplary picture, aimed to “educate” audience, like many others in the ecologist film. There are some non-filmic arguments to suspect it is a pedagogic documentary: Reggio trained during years to become a priest before renouncing to this first vocation and become a film-maker, and the picture’s cost was paid in the beginning by a teaching institution.

But if one interprets this film as a didactic tool, one distorts both its nature and its goal, and fills it with unacceptable flaws. It wouldn’t be efficient because it would be boring and tiresome, it would be confused due to its lack of clear structure and discourse, it would be simplistic in its Manichaean contrast of pristine nature an the horror of industrial world, or else one wouldn’t be able to know if what is contrasting to urban world is nature or American natives, brutally slaughtered by Britons and Europeans migrated to the New World in the longest genocide in history. These factors are doubtlessly part of the emotions Reggio wants to rouse, but don’t form a closed message, a lesson.

A reflexive picture that makes one meditate or leave it.

Let’s repeat it: it isn’t a thesis documentary. It doesn’t aim to convince of anything. It’s a film poem, who can irritate people unused to its sort of language and perspective. It is one of the best works made in its style. If we can consider it a documentary it’s only because it refers unambiguously to real world. But it’s undeniable that it sets out a matter, and a value judgement: man doesn’t live in a natural world any more, and has entered a technological world, and though he isn’t aware of it, has had the worst of it.

Collage of Koyaanisqatsi images.



Directed by: Godfrey Reggio
Country: United States
Language: Hopi
Locations: United States
Runtime: 87 minutes
Web and trailer:  http://www.koyaanisqatsi.org/films/koyaanisqatsi.php

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