Reggio's Powaqqatsi Startling, Compelling

Albuquerque Journal, August 5, 1988
By David Steinberg

Powaqqatsi is an impressive film with a strange power that derives from the meshing of two principal elements — the cinematography and the soundtrack.

Powaqqatsi fuses the rhythm of constantly swaying dramatic images with Philip Glass' hypnotic soundtrack.

Their combined power has a strange quality because the film is without dialogue or plot. But this isn't to say the film has no point.

The point is that we in the high-tech Northern Hemisphere are corrupting the simpler cultures of the Southern Hemisphere.

Reggio makes that point in the title, a Hopi Indian conjunctive for "negative sorcerer" and "life." Western civilization, the film demonstrates, is like an evil sorcerer sapping the strength from the life force of Third World cultures.

Powaqqatsi is the second film in a planned trilogy. The first was Koyaanisqatsi. Released in 1983, Koyaanisqatsi, which means "life out of balance" in Hopi, was Reggio's visual survey contrasting the frenzy of urban American in the fast lane with the solace of the landscape of the Western United States.

Glass composed a mesmerizing score for it, too.

P, however take a global approach, visually and thematically.

The images of Powaqqatsi — most of them grinding away in slow motion — portray a hard-scrabble urban and rural existence among Third World people in Brazil, Peru, Kenya, Egypt, Nepal and Nigeria. Other images were filmed in Berlin, Hong Kong, and Chartres in France.

The images are not identified by country. Instead, Reggio said he divided the film into five movements, though he never tells viewers this. The opening movement is a lengthy study — close-ups and long shots — of laborers in an open-pit gold mine, carrying away excavated mud in sacks. There are compelling close shots — of an exhausted laborer staring at the camera, of twisting streams of workers caked in mud, of two laborers carrying off an injured third worker in their shoulders.

One distant camera shot looks at a hillside on which hundreds of laborers trudge up and down narrow paths with heavy sacks on their backs. The look like unquestioning worker ants. All the while, the repetitive music, sung by a chorus of young voices, pounds away.

Though never identified, this hillside is the gold mine operation in rural Brazil photographed in Life magazine a few years ago. The images of Powaqqatsi are infinitely more dramatic than any still photo.

By slowing the film speed, Reggio captures the hell of this life. This opening scene, with its visual and musical impact, endures long after the film ends. It is the first of many images that make lasting film impressions.

For the first 55 minutes of the film, Reggio shows people at work and at play, whether they are carrying wheat downhill, walking to work or dancing. For the next 30 minutes, he introduces the products of our industrialized civilization — the train, the plane, the automobile, the high-rise apartment house&Mac226; that presume to improve their lives. Some of the images are wonderfully skewed views with unusual and startling camera angles.

The final two movements of the film capture images of these Third World peoples attempting to cope with the invasion of First World products: A startling one showed a young girl, the driver of a wooden cart, flogging a donkey with a short, fat stick. Racing past the cart are cars and trucks. The girl and the donkey are both beasts of burden and seem to symbolize a desperate Third World struggle to cope with the technological advances of the First World.

Graham Berry and Leonidas Zourdoumis, the directors of photography, have captured images that will endure in the mind's eye.

Powaqqatsi is neither a documentary nor docudrama. It's certainly not a travelogue. It is a new direction in filmmaking.

Visually, the film is more intellectually stimulating than it is entertaining. Musically, Glass' avant garde Minimalism makes the images more vivid.

Powaqqatsi is an extraordinary trip, but not for everyone.

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