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POWAQQATSI

Review by Ed Nguyen

Director: Godfrey Reggio
Audio: 5.1 Surround Sound
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: MGM
Features: Trailers, interview with director and composer
Length: 97 minutes
Release Date: September 17, 2002

"...life in transformation..."

Film ***

In 1983, filmmaker Godfrey Reggio released the avant-garde film Koyaanisqatsi.  Featuring a dazzling array of alternatively mesmerizing and soothing images coupled to Philip Glass's New Age score, the film was hailed as one of the most remarkable and original independent productions of the time.  Reggio's intent, however, was not to make just one film; he envisioned a trilogy of films revolving around common themes of life and the inevitability of change.  So, Koyaanisqatsi was only the first installment of a planned trilogy.

In 1988, the second part of the qatsi trilogy arrived.  Entitled Powaqqatsi, the sequel was an experimental film that used a flood of images as commentary on the progress of contemporary human existence.  Whereas the first film concentrated upon the dichotomy between the natural world and the industrial setting of Western cultures, Powaqqatsi instead explored a more impoverished world setting.  If Koyaanisqatsi was a film about the northern hemisphere and the alienating effect of its technology and capitalistic societies, then Powaqqatsi could be considered a film of the southern hemisphere and its more traditional people and ways of life.

Today, watching Powaqqatsi is akin to watching an episode of National Geographic, or, as Reggio describes it, in the spirit of "documentary engagement of the subject."  The film can be divided into two parts.  The first half focuses upon people in balance with traditions and nature.  The second half reveals the sometimes chaotic confusion that occurs within societies in transition.  This uneasy transformation is perhaps best symbolized in the image of a young boy, walking and dressed in traditional garbs, as he is engulfed in the swirls of a dust storm created by the wake of a huge, passing construction truck.

Powaqqatsi is presented entirely without narration.  In fact, there is no conventional story or plot to the film.  Instead, it is a symphony of sequential images which offer a splice-of-life portrait of cultures more attuned to a naturalistic existence than to the blur of industrialized activity.  Reggio's film ultimately challenges viewers to interpret its images within the realms of our own individual experiences.  Powaqqatsi concludes with a translation of its unusual title, offering some further insight into a possible unifying theme for the images of the film.

As with Koyaanisqatsi, its predecessor, this film is better experienced than described.  With scenes captured from daily life in India, Africa, and the South America continent, Powaqqatsi offers a glimpse into a world perhaps alien to many Westerners yet one just as vital and functional.  The film is a testimony to the power of cinematic images in eliciting emotional and contemplative thought.

Final note:  Recently, the film Naqoyqatsi was released in theaters.  Described as a film of "life as war," Naqoyqatsi completes the qatsi trilogy with some disturbing images of a possible course for humanity in the twenty-first century.  The three films of the trilogy, when viewed together, are as powerful as any recent documentary but reach beyond the limited constraints of geopolitics to present a more encompassing and penetrating examination of the essence of humanity.

Video *** 1/2

In general, the image quality is quite clear and detailed, with minimal dust or debris.  The print used for the DVD is fairly pristine, and the transfer has faithfully-rendered colors with realistic skin tone.  I am glad that MGM did a fine job with this transfer in preserving the beauty of the film's cinematography.

Audio ***

Due to the nature of Powaqqatsi, the only sound in the film is the score itself.  And what a memorable score it is!  New Age artist Philip Glass's unusual approach to musical composition employs numerous chordal and phrase repetition, with endless variations upon the same musical motifs.  The effect, orchestrated with electronic instruments, can seem simultaneously tedious (as in a never-ending scene of a passing train, played to looping music) yet also extremely hypnotic.  Anyone who has seen the qatsi trilogy in its entirety will probably associate forevermore the Philip Glass scores with the images, so well integrated are sight and sound in these three films.

Features * 1/2

Original trailers for all three films of the qatsi trilogy are provided.

The only other extra feature is "Impact of Progress" (20 min.), an interview with Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass.  Both men discuss the creative and symbiotic collaboration necessary to assemble Powaqqatsi's images and sounds.  Reggio also presents a very detailed explanation of the film's title and its relationships to the on-screen images.  At times, watching this interview feature is a bit like sitting through a dry philosophy lecture, although there are interesting tidbits here and there, including a brief introduction to Naqoyqatsi, the final film of the trilogy.

Summary:

The second part of Reggio's qatsi trilogy, Powaqqatsi is a quieter and calmer counterpoint to the frenzied blur of images in Koyaanisqatsi.  It is an apolitical yet evocative film that is every bit as beautiful as the first film.  A good recommendation for a meditative evening!