Powaqqatsi Review


(from the Hopi language, powaq sorcerer + qatsi life) n.an entity, a way of life, that consumes the life forces of other beings to further its own life.

The second film in Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass’s qatsi trilogy, Powaqqatsi is not just a sequel to Koyaanisqatsi, nor by any means as is often stated, is it a lesser film. Whereas Koyaanisqatsi focused on man’s relationship with technology in the Northern Hemisphere, Powaqqatsi has a different focus. Looking at countries in the Southern Hemisphere, the film moves its focus to agriculture and fishing, the use of land and the sea on which many people’s livelihood depends, and shows the effect of Western technology on these societies and traditions.

Powaqqatsi does not re-cycle themes or images from the earlier film, but it relies on the same method of putting its message across. Sweeps of countryside, ethnic tribes celebrating their traditions cut alongside images of mass-consumerism, industry and, in an age before the internet and computers held a greater influence, the world-shrinking effects of television. If Koyaanisqatsi asked us to consider our way of living in an environment of mass technology, here Reggio shows an alternative way of living, a joyous and colourful celebration of diversity, richness and tradition that is under serious threat from the effects of world globalisation.

Again portraiture is used to show the people living in these environments. In contrast to the world-weary faces seen in Koyaanisqatsi, the film makes frequent use of images of children. The intent I believe is not to manipulate the emotions, but an attempt to capture innocence, artlessness and unspoilt beauty. In other respects it can be seen as manipulative, delivering a message that is clearly more pointed and obvious than Koyaanisqatsi. It is an attempt to show that by imposing a way of living that is at odds with the traditions of the people in third world countries, we are only exploiting their resources, increasing their their poverty, and deepening their misery.

When I reviewed the German release of the film last year, a pitiful 4:3 pan and scan version of the film, I was pessimistic about ever seeing a better version than that. I can only apologise to anyone who went to the trouble of looking for that German release because MGM have proved me wrong and produced an almost immaculate anamorphic 1.85:1 release of the film. While not perfect, this print shows fine colour balance, is richly textured and mainly clear and sharp with no visible grain. It is practically free from any marks or scratches whatsoever. (If it is any consolation to those who picked up the German release on my recommendation, this new release can be picked up very cheaply indeed in a double pack with Koyaanisqatsi).
Similar to MGM’s release of Koyaanisqatsi, subtitle options in French and Spanish are mysteriously included for the main feature, which is without dialogue, but not for the extras where they would be much more useful.

Once again the images of the film are propelled along by a powerful musical score from Philip Glass. There is a greater sense of collaboration in Powaqqatsi between director Godfrey Reggio and the composer. Glass went to the locations where the film was being made and the score consequently shows a greater cohesion with the film, its diverse, colourful multicultural sound showing African, Indian and South American influences forming a greater symbiosis with the images. In some cases the music even inspired the images that were filmed, such as the opening Sierra Pelada gold mining sequence.
I’m less happy with the 5.1 remix for Powaqqatsi. This worked fine for Koyaanisqatsi, but here certain pieces suffer from the dispersal of the sound. The aforementioned Sierra Pelada sequence for example sounds chaotic and much too busy, its powerful cohesion dispersed over 6 speakers, losing its strong focus. Putting aside reservations about the 5.1 mix though, the overall sound quality is strong bright and dynamic.

Documentary – Impact of Progress
A superb quality print and sound is augmented on this DVD by a fine 20 minute documentary interview with the director and the composer. Once again, working methods are discussed, although Reggio relies a little too much on jargon and terms and phrases like ‘shibbolith’ (I have no idea what it means) and ‘re-contextualising iconic images’, which is similarly wooly. The director confirms that practically all of the film was shot as seen with no manipulation or intervention on behalf of the film makers. The only exception to this rule was one scene, ironically the most iconic and symbolic scene in the film, which they asked a young boy to repeat when they got their cameras set up.The forthcoming finale to a trilogy that has taken 24 years to make, Naqoyqatsi is discussed and it appears that it will be a very timely and relevant film, taking the previous meditations on technology and progress to their logical conclusion – technological warfare.

Also among the extras are trailers for each of the films in the trilogy. Koyaanisqatsi - Life out of Balance and Powaqqatsi - Life in transformation are presented in 4:3, while the forthcoming cinema release of Naqoyqatsi - Life as war is previewed in 1.85:1 letterbox and it looks very impressive indeed. With the tag line "Everyday Life is War", it will inevitably be very apt and pertinent to the modern day world situation.

Seen in fragments, many of the scenes in Powaqqatsi are powerful, but like Koyaanisqatsi its theme becomes apparent and it gains its full force and effect when seen in its totality as one gradually building piece. Powaqqatsi is a very different film from Koyaanisqatsi. It has a different focus, a different modus operandi and while it doesn’t have quite the same power and impact as Koyaanisqatsi, that to me says more about the originality of the earlier film than it does about any weakness in this one. Once again, MGM’s DVD presents this film marvellously and it really shouldn’t be missed.

9 out of 10
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