Wordless View of Life
The Satya Interview with Godfrey
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
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
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
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
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 www.koyaanisqatsi.org.