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August 2003
A Wordless View of Life

The Satya Interview with Godfrey Reggio



Photo courtesy of Godfrey Reggio

Godfrey Reggio wowed critics and audiences 20 years ago with the groundbreaking film, Koyaanisqatsi, a Hopi word roughly meaning “life out of balance.” Through images accompanied with music composed by Philip Glass, Koyaanisqatsi creates a wordless experience of modern life in North America, showing both its natural beauty and our growing dependence on technology, and clashes between the two. Perhaps the most famous sequence is of New York’s traffic: sped-up images of cars, cabs and buses streaming up the avenue, stopping at lights while traffic floods across, then stops; pulsating over and over again. Some viewers praised Koyaanisqatsi as an ode to technology, while others applauded it as an environmentalist commentary.

Reggio and Glass followed in 1988 with Powaqqatsi, “life in transformation,” which examines the effects our technology-centered lives have had on the South. It opens with a haunting sequence of a large gold mining operation in Brazil—thousands upon thousands of men haul heavy sacks of dirt up a steep incline like ants on an anthill. Last year, Reggio completed the “Qatsi Trilogy” with Naqoyqatsi or “life as war,” a startling look at the chronic, often violent struggle between humans and technology, and the effects it has on the planet. To celebrate the magnificence and variety of animals, Reggio created Anima Mundi, a 30 minute-long montage of over 70 animal species. And in the mid-70s, with funding from the American Civil Liberties Union, Reggio co-organized a multi-media public interest campaign on the invasion of privacy and the use of technology to control behavior.

Recently, Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi were released on DVD (MGM), and Naqoyqatsi is soon to be released on video and DVD (Miramax). Godfrey Reggio took some time to talk with Catherine Clyne about his opus, the Qatsi Trilogy, as well as life, technology, and hope.

You were a monk before you started making films, right?
I was a full-fledged lifer—I went in at 14, took my final vows at 25, and was exited at 28.

Coming from that place of contemplation, what inspired you to start making the “Qatsi” films?
In the order I was in, each brother takes five vows, one of which is teaching the poor gratuitously. As a young person I was seized by this idea of social justice and I wanted very much to follow my vow of teaching the poor gratuitously. I was told that was not practical or feasible, because how would we run our schools, etc.? But being idealistic, my activities became a problem for my superiors.

During the course of this time—the 60s—I worked with street gangs, and I saw this great film by Luis Buñuel called Los Olvidados, “The Forgotten Ones” or “The Young and the Damned.” This was purely spiritual inspiration. I guess I’ve seen it 150 times or more because it was constantly requested by gang members—I remarked to myself that I and so many others could be so moved by [it]. That motivated me to look into cinema in an entirely different kind of way.

Are there certain messages or feelings that you hope people will take with them when they see the Qatsi films?
Having been an educator for so many years I know that all a good teacher can do is set a context, raise questions or enter into a kind of a dialogic relationship with their students. I’ve made these films deliberately wrapped in ambiguity. I hope they ascend to the level of art. The power of art is its mystery—the meaning is in the eye of the beholder. So when I make a film I think of it as a “trilectic” relationship of image, music, and the viewer. If there are a hundred people that see this film in a theater at any given time, then there could be a hundred different points of view about it.

Let’s say if I somehow had “The Truth,” and it was applicable to everyone, the very act of giving it to everyone would, for me, be a fascistic act. It is very easy to make clear what you want a film to say, but I did not wish to engage in overt propaganda, even for the right cause. I wanted to create an experience through the films, something where people could have the freedom of their own response to them. So, not for lack of love of language, but because I feel our language is in an enormous state of humiliation, I decided to make films without words. Now having said that, I’ve taken the famous dictum, “a picture’s worth a thousand words,” and turned it completely upside down. I try to offer the viewer a thousand pictures to give them the power of one word; in this case from an inscrutable, uncivilized and illiterate language, Hopi, which I think has more wisdom in it than our own language, which has lost its ability to describe the world in which we live. I’ve chosen words like koyaanisqatsi, powaqqatsi and naqoyqatsi so that I could use their subjective categories to look at the white people’s world or “civilized” world. In my case, I’m trying to look at this world as if an alien appeared and was trying to make some visual if not emotive sense out of what they encounter.

In the mid-70s, you worked on a multi-media “Privacy Campaign” to educate the public about the invasion of privacy. Can you talk about that and what your thoughts are on privacy and technology today?
It was right after the Watergate hearings started. My colleagues [and I] felt that was just the tip of the iceberg, that in fact all Americans had dossiers kept on them by credit agencies and government agencies; and that the technologies developed for the moon [landing] and Vietnam were translated into technology used to control behavior or to put surveillance on the population. The motto of that campaign, which was done in 1974, was “Ten Years and Counting”—we were anticipating of course Orwell’s 1984.

What we experience now was already solidly in place during that time, it’s just that people didn’t have much attention for it. Now, it’s inescapable. It’s lamentable that people accept it as the price we pay for the pursuit of our technological happiness.

What role does technology play in your films?
The main focus of the Qatsi Trilogy, which has been the focus of my work over the last 27 years, has been Technology (with a big T because, from my point of view, technology is probably the most misunderstood subject in the world). Einstein said “I think the fish will be the last to know water.” I don’t think it would take much stretch of the imagination to say that the modern citizen will be the last to know technology, the reason being that it’s no longer something we use, but something we live. The popular myth of neutrality, that technology is “neutral” and it’s the use or misuse of it that determines its value, I think is woefully inadequate.

Modern technology was devised, I guess, as a buffer from the ravages of nature, which is at once beautiful and horrible. But instead, it separated us completely from nature to the point that now technology is our new nature—instead of anima mundi, it’s techno mundi. Mystery is gone to the certainty of technological principles. So the real terror, the real aggression against life comes in the form of the pursuit of our technological happiness.

For me, these things are unsayable because they’re so present that we don’t have any distance from which to observe. The problems of social inequity, of war, of environmental devastation, are the ongoing and logical conclusions of a way of life unexamined. So to hope to be able to have peace, to be able to have justice and environmental balance, are consequences of our behavior, not just our intentions. I think it’s naïve to pray for world peace if we’re not going to change the form in which we live.

Well, how do we do that?
I strongly believe that our world is our range of relationships, and I believe more in direct experience or direct action as opposed to more generalized committees and international forums. Nothing changes the world more conclusively than the shining light of a good example, and what we can do in our own lives is only limited by the imaginations that we have. We’re all capable of walking on water, of moving mountains—if not literally, certainly metaphorically—by the actions we take. I try to shield myself from the blinding light, the new sun of technology, [instead] seeking the darkness and ambiguity of a formless world out of which a new form can be created. In that sense, I think the most practical thing we can do is be idealistic.

A lot of our readers will already be at that point. For example, many are aware that the golden arches are a symbol of unimaginable animal suffering; that behind a ream of paper is a web of destruction; and the reality of many diamonds is not at all glamorous. Many become burned-out and overwhelmed, feeling that just living by example isn’t enough. Once consciousness is raised, what do they do with that knowledge?
To tell someone what to do with it is for me counterproductive. I don’t believe that you can tell anyone what the truth is. As enormous as the challenges are, I think they ring clearly the fundamental dialectic of life, where life is full of contradiction. Life is not as simple as this or that, good or evil. Life is this and that. Life is good and evil. It is up to the individual to sort that out. Hope can be the uncreated feature, what is the opportunity for each living person.

So what can people do? As long as people are alive, they have the possibility to be heroic. To me, the nature of being heroic is to have the courage to be hopeless about this world order in order to be hopeful about something else. I’m not a hopeless person by any means. But I am hopeless about this nonhuman order, this technological grid, this pax numericana that all of us live under. To resist that, to rebel against it—the ability to say No is what’s most important.

The greatest tragedy is inertia—the velocity most of us are on. It takes courage to move ourselves off of that line of inertia. This is something for each person, to act outside of necessity, outside of destiny—to act in that dark mucky world of risk, defiance, rebellion. This is not a class for beginners. Life is for those that wish to live, and to do so is to deal with the enormity of the moment in which we live. And that’s where our actions, based on our words, can have the most impact.

What have you learned throughout the process of making the Qatsi Trilogy?
I learned that there are an enormous number of people that feel what I’ve just been talking about, but somehow do not have the words or the ability to describe to themselves what’s happening. As a result, we’re all walking around, myself included, in an altered state. But I trust that deeper level of instinct. Many people can sense that something is woefully out of balance in the world in which we live. That is encouraging to me. Our finest moment is when we know that which determines our behavior, when we know that which is oppressing us. That’s our freest moment, as contradictory as that might sound.

Images of space exploration appear prominently in all three of the Qatsi films. Do you have thoughts or hopes about our exploration of space?
No. I think I used it more as a metaphor. It’s like the grand Roman candle on the cake—one grand event that we all point to as one of the singular accomplishments of the technological age. I think we’ve gone to space to conquer it. We’ve gone to space with the idea of raw material and resource to consume for the way of life that we live. We’ve gone for war and for industry. I don’t think we’ve gone to space for truth or for love, or for anything relating to human value.

Everything that we put into space then becomes redoubled into the fabric of the way we live; the same thing was true for the Vietnam war, certainly for the Gulf wars—all of these advances of technology, principally, come out of R & D labs for military and corporate research. These are things that have to do with control and markets, where people are nothing more than numbers; and it translates back into our society as “progress [and] development.” And we’re laying that mantra or religion of progress and development on countless souls, billions of people around the southern hemisphere, and this is at war with their very creative, handmade way of life.

Where do animals and wilderness fit into this? I know that’s a naïve question. But there’s the dichotomy of animals being rendered extinct by our way of life, yet they’re not responsible for the craziness of technology.
Well, they’re being slaughtered. Not just for our tables, but from their very existence. In the last several hundred years, ‘progress and development’ as a way of life has had a bigger impact on the planet than when meteorites hit the planet and eliminated the dinosaurs. It’s a tragedy that’s unspeakable. The same thing has happened with our oceans, with our water, with the very air we breathe.

There is no more wilderness—I think that’s a romantic idea. That sounds pretty terrible. But having said that, I do believe that long after we’re gone, the earth will certainly be here and the animals or other variances that come from evolution will repopulate the earth through this inscrutable process of chance and necessity. For those that relate to evolution (which I don’t completely), one of the principal laws is the law of limit. When a species lives outside of its capacity, then it’s asking to go extinct. The supernova is brightest at the moment of extinction—I would say we’re in a state of supernova right now. The whole world is having to deal with this species that’s only been here for several million years at the most, and we could be flaming out right now. That would be an enormous relief to the creatures we share this planet with because we’re literally eating it up without any concern for the sanctity of life.

To learn more about the
Qatisi Trilogy and the Institute for Regional Education, co-founded by Godfey Reggio, visit

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