Recently, a friend of mine asked on Twitter if there were any films that people felt were must see films before you die. I had no hesitation in suggesting a film – Koyaanisqatsi.
“Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi Indian word which translates as “Life Out of Balance”. The film itself is not an ordinary film – it doesn’t have any characters or any storyline. It is a series of images set to a soundtrack composed by Philip Glass which demonstrates our modern life as being out of balance. Director Godfrey Reggio has described the film as being a thousand pictures worth one word, and this is certainly a fair way to describe the film.
I did a Film and TV degree, and in my third year I did a module about alternative cinema. At one point during the module we were shown a clip from Koyaanisqatsi, which is widely considered as an alternative film. Our lecturer wasn’t originally planning to show us the whole film, but, due to popular demand, he put on a screening of it.
The film is quite slow moving at first, with long shots of the American wilderness. But the pace slowly builds up over the various sections, and by the time it gets to its most famous section, known as “The Grid”, it’s moving at a breathtaking speed, and it just gets faster and faster, until everything is literally becoming a blur.
Throughout the film we’re shown first a world that is in balance – and devoid of humans – and then when we see the effects that humans have on the world, what life in the human world is like, and we see life slowly getting out of balance. And the end of the film (which I won’t spoil for anyone who hasn’t seen it) packs a punch, and leaves the viewer with a lot to think about. I remember when I first saw it I walked back to my halls of residence with some friends of mine on the course, and we were in a state of reflective shock.
The film makes you think about the impact that we as a species have on the world, and also how hectic our modern lives are. The film includes a reference to the effect that TV had on our lives back in the early 80’s, but if it were to be remade today it would inevitably include references to the internet and smartphones and everything else that we have in our lives today. If anything, our lives now are even more out of balance than they were when the film was made.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film utterly condemns our modern lifestyles, but it does show how we can let things get out of hand. I would say that the film has a reasonably open meaning, and the meaning that I take from it is that we need to slow our lives down, we don’t have to live at this hectic pace, because if we continue to do so eventually things will become out of balance, and then collapse.
I chose to write about Koyaanisqatsi for an assignment on the module, and I got the top grade for my assignment (largely due to my doing some original audience research). This can be found on my website by clicking here.
Koyaanisqatsi was the first film in a trilogy. The second film was Powaqqatsi (parasitic life - a form of life that exists be feeding off another form of life), and the third film was Naqoyqatsi (life in a constant state of war). Powaqqatsi is OK as a film, which for me demonstrates the effects that modern life has on the developing world. But Naqoyqatsi was a bit of a disappointment for me, and I didn’t really get much from it. But Koyaanisqatsi is a powerful enough film to stand up on its own.
I definitely feel that it is a film that everyone should see at least once. It is a film that will really make you think, and will leave a lasting impression on you. I still think of it now, over ten years since I first saw it, and it holds up well to many re-watches. If you ever find yourself with an opportunity to see Koyaanisqatsi, then I highly recommend that you do so.
Next Week: Things I Liked When I Was a Little Boy