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Film | Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

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Pioneered a genre of documentary that brought photography and musical composition together

Koyaanisqatsi is the work of director Godfrey Reggio, time-lapse photographer Ron Fricke and composer Philip Glass — released in 1982. It was the first of the Qatsi trilogy — Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002) followed. The film would also inspire similar non-verbal documentaries with sweeping music scores such as Baraka (1992), Atlantis (1991) and the truly amazing peek into the insect world Microcosmos (1996).

The title translates as “life out of balance” from the Hopi language spoken by Amerindian folk in Arizona. Certainly, the movie affords us a very unique perspective on human life — the god’s eye view. With cinema focused on micro human stories, Koyaanisqatsi gives a very different point of view.

It all begins in a cave with some primitive human drawings juxtapose the launch of Apollo 12. It then travels through air, water, clouds, mountains until we finally arrive at human life — both its destructiveness and awesomeness.

The film makes use of several techniques. It constantly juxtaposes imagery. One purpose to contrast.

Between a mother and child on a beach that is also the location of a power plant.

Between a bustling, faceless metropolis …

… and a single, quiet human face that reveals everything.

The movie also juxtaposes imagery to draw comparison: night-time Google-eye shots of cities and circuitboards, factory machines and human machines.

Another great technique I loved was the use of repetition and patterns. It’s prolific. Take the shot below, for instance.


Of course, all of this — contrasting imagery, repetition and patterns — runs with the musical score of Glass. I don’t listen to much Glass, cos I find his usual work/minimalism repetitive. But in this movie it all really works. There’ll be a big section where the score gets repetitive and ‘busy’ (like the bit where it sounds like a group of choristers have quadruple orgasms being looped) and then suddenly it will break out into a smooth, slow, atmospheric as the camera gently glides across a beautiful landscape shot.

Koyaanisqatsi is a mesmerising, beautiful watch (and the Glass score grows on you). While it does show “life out of balance” and the machine-like quality of our existence, I don’t think its a movie that is wholly critical or negative about human life. It really puts you in the position of observer to see life in all its complexity and contradition, which makes it a movie to watch again and again.


Written by Darren Smith

13 March 2009 at 11:44 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I just love the Glass score in the movie, and Watchmen also utilises it beautifully. Transcendental work!

    Pranav D.

    15 March 2009 at 5:33 am

  2. Hi, just to share a recent interview with Godfrey Reggio, speaking about his next project:
    best wishes
    Jose Luis

    Jose Luis G. Soler

    9 April 2009 at 8:27 am

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