Powaqqatsi Review

Noel Megahey has reviewed the Region 2 release of Powaqqatsi. The 1987 sequel to the ground-breaking film Koyaanisqatsi gets a DVD release in Germany.

Po.waq.qa.tsi (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.

Powaqqatsi – Life In Transformation is another visual/musical narrative from the director of Koyaanisqatsi, and composer Philip Glass (Satyagraha, Mishima). It is not a re-working of the themes of Koyaanisqatsi, but an admirable sequel with its own ideas and images, taking over from where the first film left off.

The film opens with powerful images of a gold-mining operation in Serra Pelada in Brazil – a scene of masses of mud-covered men toiling and transporting sacks for all the world like a human ant colony, backed with the percussion-heavy, chanting accompaniment of Glass’s score. The opening sequence sets the theme of the film, showing man living off the earth’s resources – mining, fishing, crop gathering, farming – in slow-motion aerial sweeps of Indian, African and South American landscapes, people working the fields and ploughing the soil.

The film shows the positive side of using the life-force of the planet to survive – respect for the land and its produce and the worship of the people of these third-world countries in dance rituals, in temples and mosques. Half-way through the film, we see images of the effects of mass-consumerism, industry and technology on these countries, the cities and the people who live in them – life in transformation. But the film is never preachy – it shows good and bad and leaves the images to create their own impression on the viewer. Even images of industrialisation have their own terrible beauty.

I’m a bit concerned about the aspect ratio of the DVD release, which the packaging states as 1:37:1. The only other time I saw the film on FilmFour it was also presented in 4:3, so it is possible that it could be a full-frame transfer. I can’t find any information on what the correct cinematic aspect ratio of the film should be, but comparing images from the DVD with stills on the official web-site, www.koyaanisqatsi.org, it does look like the film has been panned and scanned for this release.

The picture is clear and sharp with never more than a few spots and marks here and there and some grain that betrays the age of the print and there are one or two slight jumps in the film – but generally the picture is very good indeed, with good brightness and colour levels, showing off the gorgeous photography of Graham Berry and Leonidas Zourdoumis. Sunsets are seen in all their red and golden beauty and sequences are beautifully edited, blending images of a swaying field of crops with the gentle undulations of a sea-scape and using cars sweeping past in the foreground as wipes to build up a montage of life in Indian, African and Chinese cities. It is sheer cinematic poetry.

All this beautiful photography is set to a brilliant musical score by Philip Glass. The music is unique and original – a rare departure from the typical Glass arrangement of layers of keyboard scales and arpeggios – using a wider variety of instruments and clearly showing the influences that Eastern music has had on Glass’s compositions. There is a lot of woodwind, brass and rhythmic percussion as well as a didjerido and traditional African instruments played by Foday Musa Suso. The music score is strong, powerfully integrated into a film without sound effects or voices. There is some ethnic chanting but it is composed by Glass and woven into the score in a perfect accompaniment to the visuals. The score positively booms out on the stereo Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack and while there is a fair bit of hiss audible in quieter scenes, it is more often not noticeable on the mainly thundering soundtrack.

The DVD has only been released in Germany by MCP. I am not aware of any other Region 2 release at present, although since this DVD was released it has been far surpassed by the MGM Region 1 releases of both Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi. If this release is indeed a pan & scan version, then it’s a big disappointment and a major flaw for a film where the images are so important. It should be available at a budget price, but it might be better to wait for an eventual UK release from MGM or go for the Region 1 releases.


Updated: Nov 22, 2001

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