Powaqqatsi (1988)

The second film in the Qatsi trilogy, Powaqqatsi stands in the shadows of Koyaanisqatsi. The film’s greatest downfall is that it fails to fully establish itself as distinctly different from Koyaanisqatsi, holding onto bits of what made its predecessor great, but, in the process, watering down its own identity. It’s a shame because Powaqqatsi is a great companion piece to Koyaanisqatsi conceptually, but in practice the film fails to fully deliver on those ideas.

What unifies the breadth of images that span a vast number of cultures throughout the world is the interest in the everyday lives of people. Through this exploration, themes emerge: transportation, work, play, pleasure and pain. Through the editing, the film demonstrates how the human experience transcends all cultures. At the most basic level, people are connected by the way they experience the world.

Where Powaqqatsi fails is in trying to recapture the grande, epic scale of Koyaanisqatsi. There are some rich, luscious shots of beautiful landscapes with human traces, tying in that human element, but the shots fail to speak to the human experience that unifies the film. Koyaanisqatsi is a God’s eye view of the world, and while Powaqqatsi should exist at human eye level, it can’t help but sneak back for more of these God’s eye views.

It’s a shame because the film does a great job of creating extended sequences that get the audience into the flow of human life, down among the people, experiencing snippets of human life, the unifying theme of the film. These majestic views, while great eye candy, are easily the most testing part of the film, indulgent derivatives that break away from the flow and immersion the film builds among everyday people.

It’s fascinating to watch the way the film makes connections through human movements. One of the film’s most fascinating moments is when it lingers on a person’s legs shifting ever so precisely as they dig and then cuts to a woman dancing. The same precision and balance is at work in her dance. Not only does this connect two people of two different cultures in the same physical movement, it also creates a deeper connection.

One is an act of work, the physical tilling of the ground in order to grow food for sustenance. The other is an act of leisure, the movement of body in order to gain some sort of pleasure. However, the film connects and unifies these two movements as one act. This suggest that not only can work have the same enjoyment as an act of leisure, but that leisure can be its own kind of precise work.

This small two shot is endemic of Powaqqatsi finest moments. These small human moments open themselves up to deep observations. In connecting humanity and basic human physical acts, the film suggest that various acts and practices are connected on a deeper level, that the distinctions and divides made by culture and geography are superficial.

While this might seem like an anti-culture sentiment, it ignores the fact that the film looks for these moments and movements in specific cultures that contextualize human existence. The film is still saying these distinctions are superficial on some level, that there’s something bigger, brighter and better than culture that gives individuals meaning; there is the human experience.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing