Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy: A Concealed Yet Cinematic Call to Prayer

“It is our duty to pray always for harmony between man and earth…”

-Excerpt from A Hopi Prayer for Peace


Before the technological explosion of social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, photography was relegated to the traditional worlds of commemorative mementos, photo journalism, advertising, and art. While the undeniable element of commercialism is present in each of these forums, the search for Truth (what’s really happening) and Beauty (what is ideal) served as the primary motivator in still photography. Motion pictures, on the other hand, explored this realm briefly before dedicating itself completely to the narrative commodities of Hollywood films, propaganda, and infotainment. Photography is about documenting and beautifying; filmmaking is about telling and selling.

            Sprouting out in this cracked juncture between the two like-but-different mediums, the avant-garde documentary thrives like a weed. Godfrey Reggio, the pioneer and arguable father of the avant-garde documentary, has bridged the viewing experience of photography and film in his highly-acclaimed, highly-dismissed “Qatsi” film trilogy: Koyaanisqatsi (1983), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Noqoyqatsi (2002). Over the course of the three films, Reggio tells the story of our world and our people with only one word uttered per film, the title of each installment. Reggio’s films, like so many despised weeds, catch our eye and fascination almost against our own will. To some, his work falls into Susan Sontag’s “negative epiphany” trap: raising conscience to crises we cannot impact in any way. Others, in Sontag’s line of thought, have called his vision “banal” and “cliché” – as the images of pollution, over-population, and war are already all too familiar to us (Dempsey 14).

            Reggio, on the other hand, eventually made his intentions clear off-camera – proclaiming his films are about “the lunacy of living,” how technology is “something we live,” and, ultimately, how “the image has become more real than the reality” (Wise 3).  Like the flickering images on the wall of Plato’s Cave that the dwellers accepted as reality, Reggio’s films present “the world you live in” in a way “you’ve never really seen” (LeCinephobe). Reggio even included painfully-slow zoom outs of meticulously-yet-primitively-crafted ancient cave drawings within the first Qatsi film to visually emphasize and establish this point: we’re still accepting the images on the wall as reality. Viewed by many as propaganda for activism to save the environment, Third World, or what have you, the Qatsi trilogy has been defined by both critics and the filmmaker himself as a forced retrospection and helpless acknowledgement of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are headed. Reggio, his followers, or even his critics have not acknowledged how his use of still photography viewing experiences within a film serve Reggio’s higher purpose. Until now, no one has explored how the Qatsi Trilogy is a heartfelt invitation to contemplate, meditate, and pray for humanity.

Lose your shyness, find your tongue, Alleluia!

Tell the world what God has done, Alleluia!”

- Excerpt from Christian Brothers’ prayer song, There’s a Spirit in the Air


            Born in New Orleans in 1940, Godfrey Reggio would join the Roman Catholic pontifical order of the Christian Brothers at the age of 14. As a monk, Reggio lived a very strict life consisting of silence, fasting, manual labor, and study. Even as a young adult monk, Reggio linked image with the Divine, as he explained in his own words:  “I collected holy cards, not baseball cards…” (Dempsey 2). During his years of religious service, Reggio became increasingly involved in social activism, which upset his religious superiors. In an attempt to decrease his growing involvement in secular activities, Reggio was asked to relocate to Rome to work in the Christian Brothers archives. Instead, Reggio left the order at age 28.  Reggio does not regret entering or leaving the Christian Brothers, as it gave him a different point of view of America (Burr 26). Reggio’s next life-changing event was a screening of Luis Bunuel’s film Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned). Reggio was deeply moved by the film’s surreal storytelling of two young Mexicans who venture deeper and deeper into the criminal world. Reggio was in awe of the film’s disregard for entertainment and its focus on a social issue. He called the act of seeing the film a “spiritual experience” (Wise 1). Years later, Reggio was introduced to television and film production when he helped establish the Institute for Regional Education (IRE) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Much of his IRE video and film work explored technology’s control over society – a theme Reggio would claim is the thematic heart and soul of his renowned Qatsi film trilogy.

“O, the Astonishing Spectacle we then had before our eyes,

of the vanity of our best estate in this life!”

-          Excerpt from Benjamin Colman’s A Devout Contemplation

            Each film within the Qatsi Trilogy is named after a Reggio-invented word using parts of the Hopi Indian language. While each “qatsi” name is animated in a beginning opening title sequence of each film, the definition of the title isn’t explained until the end of the film with onscreen graphics (see figure below) . All three films feature a Phillip Glass score with minimal vocal accompaniment. There is no sync/natural audio coinciding with action or images onscreen. The imagery featured in the films varies in content, but is best described as documentary footage of the world and civilization with on-camera subjects ranging from landscape to portraitures to pop culture media. Both Koyaanisqatsi and Naqoyqatsi feature a significant percentage of pre-existing footage (also known as “found footage”).  Various film critics and reviewers are quick to note that the Qatsi films have no setting, no characters, no dialogue, and no plot.  While it is overwhelming to synopsize each Qasti film, a brief understanding of each film is necessary in light of this argument regarding Reggio’s intentions for the films.

            Koyaanisqatsi has been called everything from a hypertext to a head trip (Essid 1). When it premiered at Radio City Music Hall as the opening selection of the 1983 New York Film Festival, audiences were simultaneously confused and inspired by a film with no plot, setting, characters, dialogue, or narration. Even with Francis Ford Coppola’s name as the “presenter” of this new work of art, Koyaanisqatsi was a risky film to make and was deemed by most as “unreleasable.” With soaring imagery of the unpopulated deserts to portraitures of Americans from all walks of life, Koyaanisqatsi seemingly left no stone unturned for thought-provoking content. The films use of time lapse and motion-controlled photography of weather, traffic, and television broadcasts inspired a generation of commercial, cable television, and music video directors (Burr 13). Mimicry of Reggio’s lockdown, sped-up time lapse cinematography of clouds swirling in a frenzy over the countryside, the moon sliding behind a glossy skyscraper, and car headlights streaking over and underpasses have been seen on many cable networks including QVC, The Weather Channel, and MTV.  While Reggio didn’t create time lapse, extended open shutter, or double exposure shooting techniques required to achieve these visual effects, he made them popular and hip among influential film and television industry leaders. Koyaanisqatsi went on to receive considerable critical acclaim and awards, grossed nearly twice its budget within the first decade of its release, and is considered required viewing in most film schools. The subtitle of Koyaanisqatsi, as listed on its MGM DVD case, is “Life Out of Balance” (Reggio, 1983).  In short, this film sets up a trilogy centering on how technology itself is becoming the environment. Technology is no longer “something we use, it’s something we live” (Wise 3).

With the financial backing of both Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas and twice the budget of the first Qatsi film, Powaqqatsi (1988) would feature original documentary footage captured in Kenya, Egypt, Peru, Africa, India, Asia, South America and the Middle East (Sterrit 1). While critics championed the film’s embrace of diverse cultures and religions, as well as its praise of hand labor, craftsmanship, and wishful return to nature, Powaqqatsi barely made one-fourth of its budget at the box office (Dempsey 8). The film was considered by many to be the sophomore slump of Reggio’s filmmaking career, however, Powaqqatsi produced the most recognizable music track of the trilogy: Anthem, Part 3 – which won an ASCAP Film and Television Music Award for its reuse in the Jim Carrey dramatic feature, The Truman Show (1998) – suggesting that, at the very least, certain elements of this Qatsi film are the most accessible to the mainstream moviegoers. Powaqqatsi also possessed a distinct structure. Inspired by the Berlin Wall, Reggio structured the film in two distinct sections to tell his story of “Life in Transformation” (Reggio, 1988). The first focused on present-day cultures using minimal technology.

The second section illustrated the human and environmental cost of progress and reliance on technology. (Shapiro 125).  Powaqqatsi’s structure solidified the overall “Life” arc of the trilogy from “Life Out of Balance” to “Life in Transformation” to, ultimately, “Life as War.” Powaqqatsi also clearly pointed to the Qatsi films’ spiritual intent with shots of praying people of various faiths and other inspirational imagery guiding viewers to contemplate the “obvious relevance… of the spiritual aspect of life” (Shapiro 106).

            Naqoyqatsi (2002), subtitled “Life As War,” is the concluding installment in the Qatsi trilogy and is seemingly as bleak as its title.  Film critic Alan Burdick describes the film as “a dizzying journey that evokes genetic enhancement, crowd violence, television advertising, urban decay, rural decay, and the overall digitalization of society…picture The Matrix on acid (2).” Others explain its theme as “the human endeavor devoted to self-destruction” (McCarthy 2) and “the loss of everything of diversity and individuality…the Los Angelisation of the planet (Wise 3).” Financed by Academy-Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh, nearly 80% of Naqoyqatsi is created from found footage of television news feeds, videogames, internet media, and industrial films (Reggio, 2002). The shortest film in the trilogy with a running time of 89 minutes, Naqoyqatsi is the first Qatsi film to feature original computer-generated animation and Yo-Yo Ma’s cello solos. Despite all these “marketable” aspects to the film, this installment is the weakest box office performer of the three Qatsi films, grossing just over $133,000 domestic with an estimated budget of $3 million (IMDB.com).  Despite this dismal performance at the box office, Naqoyqatsi’s imagery and intended message is indeed haunting and hard to ignore. Plus, Reggio’s collaboration with Glass, Soderbergh, and Naqoyqatsi editor Jon Kane proved fruitful. Visitors, another avant-garde documentary film by Reggio, Glass, and Kane and presented by Soderbergh, is due for release in 2014.

“…He is as a word which comes out of your mouth.

That word! It is no more, it is past, and still it lives! So is God.”

-          Excerpt from Bantu prayer


            Due to the still life misé en scene of the Qatsi films, Godfrey Reggio has been referred to as a “vital link” across the chasm that now separates still photography from cinema. As culture critic Carlo McCormick proclaims: Reggio is “our greatest hope for recovering cinema as a pure pictorial language capable of relating its own stories outside the realm of words” (13). The pure pictorial communication of ideas and themes has been explored throughout film history. In the opening placards of his 1927 film Man with a Movie Camera, filmmaker Dziga Vertov referred to himself as both an author and experiment supervisor who aspired to create “a truly international language of cinema based on its absolute separation from the language of theatre and literature” (1927). In the 1950s, the Left Bank Group of the French New Wave film movement referred to themselves as “cinematographic essayists” (Taylor 74).  Chris Marker, a leading essayist in this movement, made several documentary and narrative films that mainly consisted of still images with audio accompaniment – the most well-known of these works is the renowned science fiction short La Jetee (1962). In his article “Writing with Images…”, Andrew Taylor refers to films that employ mainly still imagery as “still/moving forms” that allow “more space for audience interaction and emotional response than conventional narrative cinema” (59). Taylor further explains that when filmmakers mix both still photography and film footage, they are creating Film-Photo-Essays. A key aspect of the Film-Photo-Essay is its ability to provide “pensive moments” via a freeze frame or still image over a certain period of time within a film. This pensive moment prompts the viewer to have an emotional reaction to the image and its sequential placement within the overall film. By utilizing these pensive moments, filmmakers hope to communicate their vision on the determined topic and inspire the viewer to think and act upon the cause at hand. According to famed film theorist Siegfried Kracauer,  photography and film were predestined to inspire viewers to improve our world since both mediums share a “redeeming physical reality” that must be used “to save civilization from its compulsive indulgence in abstractions brought on by science” (Pennley 66). An awareness of humanity’s growing “reliance on science” is at the core of the Qatsi trilogy’s message, but it is not its sole purpose.

“In your love you have given us the power

to behold the beauty of your world

robed in all its splendor.”

-          Excerpt from Jewish Prayer for Hanukkah

Koyaanisqatsi begins with a “slipstream of landscapes images all but hallucinatory in their pellucid, unpopulated clarity” (Dempsey 2).  As the film progresses, we see humanity ignore its environment with passive acceptance of mechanization. Time-lapse photography likens speedy subway commuters on escalators to hot dogs careening through a meat-packing assembly line.  While cinematic treatment of vistas usually convey landscape as a medium unto itself with “exchange, focus, and formulation of identity” (Mitchell 2), Reggio juxtaposes spacious deserts with clogged subways to stress humanity’s dangerous disconnect with the natural world. Powaqqatsi works in the same way, only the dichotomy is much more severe. The first half of the film displays cultures that are less tech-infused and more merged with nature. Upon the arrival of an unusually long freight train that continuously rolls through the frame for several minutes at the half-way mark of the film, it becomes clear that the “beast god of modernity” has arrived. From that point forward, Powaqqatsi illustrates how technology has become our new environment, as natural as the air we breathe (Dempsey 9-10). Naqoyqatsi continues this bleak exposition of humanity’s commitment to technology, tying it into our collective lust for control and power via war, videogames, entertainment, and science. Reggio claims he saw the Qatsi vision years before he was a filmmaker saying: “America was becoming rootless…the family was dying…it wouldn’t be long before we had a technological society” (Burr 26). Ironically, Reggio’s observations of a world gone wrong with technology have been recorded with the most advanced filmmaking tools of its day. Yet, even with critics’ grasp of the trilogy’s meaning complete with Reggio quotes to support their claims, they still struggle with the purpose of the films. “The filmmakers,” Burdick gripes, “offer no insight and admit they are portraying the devil using the devil’s own digital paintbrush” (2).

“…May I realize the Path of Awakening,

For the sake of all beings.”

-excerpt from Buddhist Mealtime Prayer


            “I wanted to see the familiar for the first time, to stare at it until it was strange,” Reggio explained as his intent with the Qatsi films, “To do this, I had to hold a mirror to the world (McCormick 29).” Through his films, Reggio takes advantage of people’s conditioning to see our world in a “type of comfortable but lazy perceptual ground (Shapiro 53).” Our modern-day minds quickly process each shot in his films and cry “Next!” in a rushed desire to move onto the next morsel of information. Still, by employing pensive moments such as long, fixed camera angles on casino waitresses staring into camera or a single sheep that is virtually cloned before our eyes (see images above), Reggio suspends time, thereby forcing the viewer to “perceive the flow of visual information as a process of contemplation.” This forced contemplation awakens something buried deep down inside us that we can’t readily explain. These films, as McCormick points out, circumvent the mind “by accessing the heart and soul through the senses (McCormick 29).” It is through this forced contemplation – via a myriad of shots ranging from majestic barren landscapes to staring contests with children of the Third World – that Godfrey is inviting the viewer to pray.

“I recognize you are the temple

In which my spirit and creative energy dwell.”

-excerpt from Affirmation to My Body, Hindu

            Prayer has been defined by many different religious organizations. Many people understand prayer as “talking to God.” Buddhists, however, do not believe in God, but they do pray to “enlightened beings” for healing and guidance. Yet all who pray – regardless of their religion – are attempting to communicate with an entity or entities they believe are real (Chilson 8). Reggio, as a one-time member of the Roman Catholic Christian Brothers order, believes God is real and prayer is an acknowledgement of God’s presence in words, action, or contemplation. For Catholics, prayer is also considered a gift from God to be accepted and utilized. Reggio has indirectly positioned the Qatsi trilogy in a similar fashion. “The films are offered as a gift,” Reggio explained, “not a point of view” (Wise 1).

            Both direct and indirect references to religious icons appear throughout the Qatsi films. Various critics claim that Koyaanisqatsi provides “God’s eye perspective” on the modern world with sweeping, aerial views of massive waterfalls, desert canyons, and ant-like portrayals of congested cities. Powaqqatsi’s procession of open pit mine workers is said to be “Christ-like” and the moment in the film when the viewer is “entering a dimension of the mystical, the holy, or the supernatural” (Shapiro 114, 73). Naqoyqatsi is more abrupt, barraging the viewer with a series of corporate logos intermixed with the Christian cross, the Star of David, the Star and Crescent, and so on.

            Powaqqatsi illustrates people in prayer and contemplation more than any Qatsi film. The first montage occurs after several long takes of smiling children in a nondescript city slum starting directly into camera for an extended period of time. The children are followed by a Buddhist, then a Muslim, and then a silhouetted figure pondering the sunset at the ocean’s edge. These images, as Shapiro explains, convey “a certain universality of spiritual need and expression” (83). Just like the figure in the film staring at the sunset, the viewer is staring at the movie screen conscious of the visual meaning before their eyes, but wordless in response (Tuzik 12). The viewer has entered contemplation alongside the religious figures within the film.

            Several minutes later in the film, Reggio combines images of children again with religion. Children dressed in tattered clothes stare at the camera while riding a primitive Ferris wheel. This scene is intercut with shots of more Muslims at prayer and a Hasidic Jew kissing the Wailing Wall. Powaqqatsi keeps repeating this pattern: children looking directly into camera followed by religious figures.

This repeating pattern is the core of the Qatsi trilogy. In Koyannisqatsi, Reggio established cinema as a vehicle for prayer with pensive Film-Photo-Essay moments of awe-inspiring, uninhabited landscape and casino workers, subway commuters, and jet pilots staring directly into camera.  This guided looking at the awesomeness of nature and man is directly out of the Bible. “O Lord, our Lord, Your greatest is seen in all the world!...When I look at the sky, which You have made, at the moon and the stars, which You set in their places – what is man, that You think of him…Yet You made him inferior only to Yourself…(PSALM 8: 1, 3-5).”

Powaqqatsi also highlights God’s majesty in creation as well as his presence within a variety of people, but centers on obvious religious figures or poor children – who represent the ultimate citizens of Heaven. “Amen, I say to you,” Jesus teaches his disciples, “unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (MATT 18:3-4).”

Naqoyqatsi showcases how humanity has sacrificed this humility for its lust for war, power, technology, and science. As a result, most of the Naqoyqatsi landscapes are crumbling, war-torn structures – similar to the fallen “Babylon the Great” of the Book of Revelations (REV 18: 2). However, the call to prayer through cinematic face-to-face contact remains. The most memorable Naqoyqatsi people staring into camera are not human at all, but wax figures representing various politicians and military commanders. And yet, the viewer can contemplate humanity while staring at the wax sculptures. This appreciation of technology and art’s ability to evoke pensiveness can elevate the viewer to a higher level of communication with the Divine. In this sense, the Qatsi films are the same as the wax figurines – both art and artificial – with a holy purpose to connect the viewer to a higher reality.

            While the on-camera presence of faithful people engaged in prayer and meditation are obvious markers of the need for prayer in the world, the extended shots of people looking into camera represent the most earnest call to prayer. Through these portraitures that break the fourth wall between the filmed and the filmgoer, Reggio is drawing our attention to the God’s own concealment within our world. As Father Haggerty writes in his book Contemplative Prayer: “When [God] shows himself, it will be in camouflage and shadow, the glimpse of his face not recognized until later…A poor man’s face, uncomprehended at the time, leaves our souls disquieted, longing for God and not knowing why…Christian revelation is the mystery of divine personhood gazing at us from a human face (Haggerty 28, 31).” Like the holy cards he collected in his youth, Reggio’s Qatsi films are visual aids for communicating with the Divine.

“Praise be to the Lord of the Universe

Who created us and made us into tribes and nations

That we may know each other,

not that we may despise each other.”

-          Muslim Prayer For Peace

Technology is often cast as the villain in the Qatsi trilogy, but it is not the sole cause of our sufferings. Rather, the villain is modern day humanity’s “certain poverty of spiritual intelligence” due to its reliance on technology (Haggerty 41). Since technology has become humanity’s “way of life” as a constant companion in the pursuit of knowledge and distraction, the search for God within the world and within each other offers seemingly no practical purpose. As a result, this call to prayer is ignored. Similar to the many social media participants who become less social in reality, citizens of the post-Qatsi world have accepted “the image as more real that reality” – just as Reggio and Sontag predicted. Luckily for us, the recognition of humanity’s lack of interest in prayer and its growing interest in technology inspired Reggio to make technically-advanced films that lead us to prayer. The Qatsi films are slick evangelistic maneuvers – placing the works and faces of God before viewers under the guise of a feature-film documentary.  Reggio – along with his Qatsi film crew – continue to make films that dazzle and aggravate viewers, stirring their souls. Their latest film, Visitors, is due out in 2014.  What is the visual content of the film’s trailer? Beautiful, high definition video footage of people staring directly at us. Perhaps this prompt will inspire viewers to communicate with the Divine in each of us. After all, one can only hope…and pray.


Popular Posts