Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation

(Hopi, 1988)

This is the first sequel to Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, from 1982. It was followed 14 years later by Naqoyqatsi: Life as War. All three are words from the Hopi language, and all three were filmed by Godfrey Reggio. Dude was seriously determined to get his vision out there, over twenty years. All three also feature music by Philip Glass, one of the few modern composers I can tolerate, even enjoy.

It’s almost impossible and fairly pointless to try to describe this movie. There is a half-assed synopsis at Wikipedia, but it really tells you nothing. All three of these films are collections of moving images. They probably mean something to the director, and many critics have put their own interpretations on them. (The consensus about the first one was that it was some sort of simplistic New Age environmentalist message: Nature Good, Mankind Bad.) You could see it that way, but I haven’t a clue as to how one would interpret this one. Transformation? Okay, but I don’t really see that. The only way these films work for me—and they work wonderfully well—is to sit back and let the images and music wash over me. [Didn’t work for me, especially the irritating Philip Glass soundtrack.]

This one is filmed almost entirely in the Third World, South America and India and Southeast Asia, and there are two lasting impressions that are obvious. One is that parts of this planet are almost empty of humans, and other parts are almost unimaginably crowded. Somewhere (Sao Paulo? Hong Kong?) there are urban high-rises so numerous and dense that they would give a worker bee claustrophobia.

The second thing is that some people’s lives are almost unimaginably hard. The opening image is of the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil. Literally thousands of men labor carrying sacks of mud uphill that look to weigh at least 100 pounds. Then they go back for more. I can’t imagine their lives. At the end of a sequence two men are carrying a dead friend out of the open pit. He was hit by a falling rock. It’s an image that will stay with me, as will countless others from this movie.