INTERVIEW: Lone Giant: Godfrey Reggio's "Naqoyqatsi"
by Erin Torneo
(indieWIRE: 09.13.02) -- At 6' 7", filmmaker Godfrey Reggio is a giant with an intellect to match. So it's no surprise that the scope of his work is equally massive: The films of his heralded Qatsi trilogy tackle gargantuan themes like modernization, globalization, and war in spectacular concert with the music of Philip Glass -- all without uttering a single word.
Reggio's "Naqoyqatsi" completes a trilogy that includes the previous films "Powaaqatsi" and "Koyaanisqatsi." Like its predecessors, "Naqoyqatsi" is a visual symphony teeming with beauty and assault to Glass' transcendent score, featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma. But had it not been for prominent Hollywood players lending their sway, Reggio's overwhelming films might never make it outside of museums and classrooms. In the case of "Naqoyqatsi," director/producer Steven Soderbergh, who called the film "an explosion of ideas and imagery; a riveting, rigorous, provocative, and breathtaking exploration," became paramount in getting the film finished and into theaters.
Taken from the Hopi term meaning "a life of killing each other," "Naqoyqatsi" is both a staggering technical paean (the film used some three and a half terabytes of video storage) of technology itself, as well as an indictment of it: For Reggio, technology's borderless pursuit epitomizes the essence of globalization and its agenda of homogenization. Now, as we stand on the cusp of war with Iraq, "Naqoyqatsi"'s theatrical release is startlingly relevant.
indieWIRE's Erin Torneo spoke with Reggio, who admits he has "never sent an email" in his life, but nonetheless has some powerful things to say about technology's infiltration of our culture, its relationship to power, and the logical conclusions of power-based regimes. The interview may be much longer than our usual story, but Reggio once spent 14 years in contemplative silence, so we think he's got something to say. Miramax releases the film today.
indieWIRE: Why don't you start by telling me a little about the overall conception of the trilogy? It could be interesting for the readers to have "Naqoyqatsi" put into context with the rest of the trilogy.
Godfrey Reggio: The first film ["Koyaanisqatsi"] deals with the Northern Hemisphere's hyperkinetic industrial technological grid. The second film "Powaaqatsi," deals with cultures of morality, cultures of tradition, of handmade existence -- cultures of simplicity in the southern hemisphere. And "Naqoyaqatsi" of course completes the trilogy and deals with the globalized moment in which we live, where computers, the Internet, where technology is becoming something we no longer use but something we live. The purpose of the trilogy was, in a very limited way, to hold up a mirror to life as it exists in the fast lane.
iW: The obvious question that I have to ask then is why choose film -- a guilty part of the acceleration of technology and its ubiquity in modern existence -- for these examinations?
Reggio: Well, several reasons. Tragically, our language no longer describes the world in which we live. At the beginning of the 20th century, we had 30,000 languages and principal dialects. Today, we're down to almost 4,000 languages and principal dialects. So, language is being homogenized. The language of the moment or, as it were, the language of the order in which we live, is the image. I felt that if I wanted to commune with the public, I should best do so through the language of image. It's a conscious embrace of a contradiction.
iW: But the "picture is worth a thousand words" adage notwithstanding, human instinct seems to want to frame things narratively, be they dreams or news stories or what have you. Have you ever considered putting any of these films in a narrative form?
Reggio: Well, not in these films, but I do an awful amount of lectures so I get a chance to blow out a lot of hot air, to put out a lot of saliva [laughs]. That's not to say that I couldn't do something in the future if I have one that would require a more traditional approach. But having said that, I feel the form of film has fundamentally been captured by theatrical presentation -- so I do try to take out all of the foreground of that tradition -- characterization, plot, acting -- and go with what's normally called the background or the mise-en-scene, or the second unit, and make that the foreground.
Now having said that, I realize that releasing a film in the real world is like trying to get General Motors to release a handmade car. I consider it to be an anomaly to be able to make a film without actors. When you do that you're relegated to a museum, or to a gallery or to a cinematheque and that's about the end of it.
iW: Exactly. The Qatsi films have thus far been museum and film school fare -- I actually wrote one of my first papers as an undergrad on "Koyaanisqatsi" -- but Miramax is releasing this. What do you hope for with this theatrical release?
Reggio: I don't think this will be an easy film to sell, I think it's courageous of Harvey Weinstein to allow a film like this to go through a traditional company -- albeit independent. Most of the independent films that he releases, all of those were characterization plots -- they had the normality of theatrical films. This is like a freak show, it's like a cat that barks. It's remarkable that a bottom-line business would risk the investment they put into it.
iW: Well, you've also had a hand from two directors in particular who can easily navigate the Hollywood machine and the independent world: Steven Soderbergh with this film, and Francis Ford Coppola with "Koyaanisqatsi." Can you elaborate on your relationship with them?
Reggio: I feel very fortunate in the case of both Francis Coppola and George Lucas, and now Steven Soderbergh, who in all cases came to me. That's not to say that they were knocking my doors down, [laughs] but