Could you tell us about the life you lived before Koyaanisqatsi that brought you to it?
I come from New Orleans. La Dolce Vita! I was living a pretty fast life as a kid and decided at thirteen that it was time for me to do something – in my terms – “heroic ”. Little did I know what I was getting into, because when I left home to join the Frères des Écoles chrétiennes, I entered in fact the Middle Ages! It made joining the military look like the boy scouts. It was very intense. And it was probably the best thing I’ve ever did. It made me in the world but not of it. It gave me a certain distance, a perspective, that I probably would never had if I stayed in the indulgence of New Orleans.
I felt, as a young person growing up in a racist society, that somewhat the world was upside down. I couldn’t figure out why, but I knew that something was vitally wrong and that feeling had stayed with me throughout my life. It motivated the beginnings of Koyaanisqatsi. I felt that – well, perhaps – I was thinking I was a little mad the fact I realized, after reflecting and reflecting, that the world itself was mad and out of control. I also felt that there was very little language to speak about it, because our language was no longer describing the world in which we lived.
One of my big teachers in life and a dear friend was Jacques Ellul, a French writer, and his book in particular, The Technological Society, was like an eye-opener for me. It confirmed my worst feelings about the world we lived in, that technology was not something we used. It was like everything in life that which was the most present is the least seen. And it gave me the context for Koyaanisqatsi. That this present traffic, way we lived, technology, the affluence that we’ve achieved, the expense of the enormous suffering from the rest of the world… That the price we pay for the pursue of that technological happiness is the destruction of the world we live in. So these were very heavy things for a young person to be thinking about and that led me to an attempt to do something I had never done: make a film.
You talk a lot about your vision of cinema, your philosophy about the medium, but what were your major influences that lead you to cinema?
Not been a filmmaker by living in a religious community, I was outside of that world. But during that time as a monk, I was working with the street gangs, the juvenile delinquency. As a social worker, I encountered a beautiful film of Luis Buñuel called Los Olvidados, and it was like not entertainment for me. It was a spiritual experience. I was so moved by the film I bought a 16mm reduced copy of the film and showed it on the walls of the Barrio, the street gangs. As it moved me, it moved those young people. It made me examine the power of cinema for the concerns that I had with through the seeing of that film of Buñuel. I took a real interest in cinema as a form in which to express my feelings.
Having said that, I can’t make the kind of films the great masters made. I can only do what was possible for me, and I wanted to make a film where the audience completed the subject. A film that would be essentially autodidactic, where the person sitting next to you might have a completely different experience than yourself. I felt that was important. To have been a teacher as a Christian brother, as a friar, I know that the principle of learning is the student herself or himself, but it’s not the teacher. I wanted to set up a film that allowed students to teach themselves about the world we lived in. Instead of reading and telling you a story, I would rather give you a story to be hold, one that you could have a point of view on.
It is very peculiar that you want to keep a neutral statement with your films, that the message we understand within the movie is only personal and not oriented by you. But you said earlier that you wanted to share your feelings about that world which became mad.
I wanted to see the film as art. The beauty of art is that the meaning is in the eye of the beholder. What art can do is change the perspective, or the lens, or the way of which one sees or hears the world. I knew in the case of this film that the image itself would be constructed from the visual and I felt that is much effort should go into the music to. So I employed the tremendous talent of Ron Fricke and Philip Glass. Both of them were masters in their own unique different ways. And to work with them allowed me to realize something that I certainly couldn’t do by myself so when we say that I directed Koyaanisqatsi, that it’s “Godfrey Reggio’s film”, I want you to know that I mean we. This is a film way beyond my individual capacity.
Technology is our new comprehensive environment. It’s the most important event of our time and it is the least seen because it’s the most present.
How did you met Ron Fricke?
We were starting a project for the American Civil Liberties Union about the invasion of privacy, the use of data to control decision-making. All the things we are talking now today, we were talking about in the mid seventies when it was beginning and was already well on its way. During that time, my colleague Ray Hemenez said there was a young man in town who was quite skilled at photography, so I asked him if he was willing to do spots for our non-narrative adverts that would going to appear for the American Civil Liberties Union. Not only did he do them, he did them in a brilliant way. It was a beautiful work and that campaign on the invasion of privacy, the use of technology to control behavior change public opinion in the South West from 40% to 60%. It was a quite effective campaign. At the end of that, both Ron and I decided that we wanted to take this further in a film.
Did you give Philip Glass some intentions for the score?
He knows much more in music that I would ever know, in many lifetimes. So I wanted to motivate him to consider the possibility of doing his music for this film. He doesn’t just do his own music to be integrated into the process. So I set up a meeting with him, and finally he agreed. he didn’t want to do movies, he wasn’t interested in movies at that time. And I set up a meeting at Jonas Mekas Anthology film archives, what was so ho of the day. I presented images or visuals that we had filmed in the four corners of the United States. And I put two soundtracks on it. One with Mussgorsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition did by the great Japanese composer Isao Tomita. And the other, a piece of music that Philip Glass had written, with no contact with the film. At the end of the screening he stayed remarkably, and I say: what do you think what’s best? And he said: “Well, I think mine did”. And from that moment on, we have been collaborating now for like thirty years. We have done six films together.
What was your vision for Koyaanisqatsi?
In this film, I wanted to remove the foreground of traditional cinema – the characterization and plot – and I wanted to film the background. That we wanted to film buildings, traffic, as it was Marilyn Monroe, giving them that much focus, that much attention. Koyaanisqatsi is a speechless narrative, in that sense it is not a traditional narrative, but it’s narrative in the visualization in the image, in the alignment of the music and the visual itself. There is a visual language, a meta language if you want. To do so, was quite an ordeal. I chose all the locations for the work. Of course, Ron Fricke shot the film but I was there on all the occasions except one you know why. When there’s another preparation to shoot going one. But yes, I was at all the shoots, I was at the edit, the music, all of it. I’m committed, not with grace and gratuity, but like to an insane asylum so it would be impossible not to be there. Having said that, what I did is show Ron the location, give him a sense of what I’m looking for, but I don’t tell him like I don’t tell Philip what to do, otherwise, I would do it myself. But they know much better their jobs than would I do. It took seven years to do this and we had to have the backing, none of investors but of angels, someone willing to make a bad deal for the love of the project and we had that in the person of Dan Noyes, a philanthropist in the United States.
Did you already think about making a trilogy?
Not originally, but as we got started, I told Philip that we were on a roll and that with no one else liking what we were doing before it was released and Philip said: “well, you know Godfrey, things go better in three”. And of course, he said the magic word for me, because I’m obsessed with the number three. I do all my film, the scripting of them in three acts. So, it was that point we decided we would go through three films.
I chose meta language of art as the driving narrative for the film.
From Koyaanisqatsi to Visitors, there are many shots in your works of people faces, but unlike traditional cinema, they are looking back at the camera and the spectator. What sensation do you trying de create by confronting the characters and the spectator in that kind of face to face?
I believe in what is called the reciprocal gaze. Anima Mundi, with almost a hundred animals, most of them face to face with the audience, based on the idea from Loren Eiseley, an American poet and philosopher, that one has not seen themselves until they’ve been seen through the eyes of other animal. That which is most interesting to us and that which reveals most about us is the face that we have. It wears a mask that all of us have within us. That’s why advertising focuses on faces. Faces have an enormous story to tell, if you have the chance to see them, almost to stare at them to the point they start to look strange. I learn as a young monk that I really don’t see that which is ordinary or around me until I stare at it and it starts to look strange. So long shots, full frame faces, these reveal the emotive states of people.
Koyaanisqatsi was shot in the end of the 70’s, 35 years from now, but its vision of consumerism, technology and our relation with nature is more actual than ever.
Technology is our new comprehensive environment. It’s the most important event of our time and it is the least seen because it’s the most present. That is the focus of, not only, Koyaanisqatsi but all the films I’ve made. It’s like many turns around the same tree because this is such a complex and comprehensive subject. We tend to thing that we control technology, that it’s neutral, that it use some issues is what determined its value. I’m a heterodox and take at completely different point of view that technology has its own presence, inherent determinism. It becomes the comprehensive host of life, being sense it the environment we live in. We become what we see touch, smell, taste, hear. We become the world we live in and the world we live in is technological and that sense I can say that I am technology. Like I could say I am a primate because we transiting from a human form into a cyborg form as we speak. Now these are just points of view. I don’t wish to say all those things into my film in a overt language form because I don’t think they would be heard. I don’t think we have the language we describing a world that is no longer here with our language. So that’s why I chose meta language of art as the driving narrative for the film.
Anything that succeeds is consumed by the big beast that eats up everything.
But nowadays, we have two quite different ways of life in opposition. The older one, destroying the nature, and a second where the technology is symbiotic with nature.
Il the very definition of the word koyaanisqatsi, it says a “way of life” that calls for another way of living, unless we figure out somehow another way of living, another standard by which we can be in this world that we gonna lose the edge. Right now, we’re in the presence of A.I. [Artificial Intelligence]. It is extraordinarily more intelligent than we are, because of all the data put into it, but it’s not a conscious intelligence. It has its own determination. Its own imperatives as it were. And that’s what is in the driver’s seat, it’s like flying in an airplane on autopilot, where we’re strapped in for the ride, but we’re not driving the vehicle. The medium is driving the vehicle. For example, all the gizmos that we completely addicted to. To me, these forms are terroristic forms because they seem so wonderful and we all want them and it’s changing completely our planet and our way of life and what it means to be a human being. We live in a world where everything is mass, where all together, all at once, we’re in the same boat. The beauty of life is its diversity. How boring it would be if there was one weather pattern, one language, one culture and our way of life is through the unity of this diversity. That is, of course, in direct opposition to a world that has been modernized with one people, one way, one idea. The global world of technology.
If Koyaanisqatsi was made today, which more recent element would you add in it?
I don’t think I would change a thing. It’s like having a child. I look Koyaanisqatsi as a child. This child has born, it has a life of its own as it were and it appears that it certainly outlive me. It keeps giving and it speaks a language that is I think recognizable to the people that are alive today as it was for people that were alive in 1982, when it was released. So, I don’t wish to mess with my kid. This kid knows more than I do, anything I might put into that film was my limits. It says much more than I put into it, so I can only be thankful that the audience is not just a spectator, but completes the story. Its story is still the same, only it’s getting more intense.
What do you feel about the numerous references to Koyaanisqatsi in movies, on television and even video games?
Anything that succeeds is consumed by the big beast that eats up everything, so if anything is successful it gets immediately consumed for commercial reasons. Now, that what was used as a punctuation mark from the seventies and before, time lapse photography was consumed by advertising as a prime language to describe the world they lived in. So you can turn on TV and see time lapse everywhere, news cast, weather report, movies, it’s all over the place. I think what we did was make a language out of it and it was consumed by those that want to make commercial language out of it. Though, it makes me feel ambiguous a bit. I don’t know how to respond to it. But I don’t move away from what we did for Koyaanisqatsi.
You are executive producer on Tom Lowe’s movie Awaken. He’s very inspired by your works. How did he contacted you for his project?
I was in the effort to make Visitors. I was looking for some cinematographers and I got a letter from Tom Lowe. I didn’t know how he got my email, saying that he was inspired by Koyaanisqatsi and would be very interested in working on any project I was doing. We had a meeting and I liked him immediately. And all the shots done in the swamps of [in Visitors] were done by Tom Lowe. He did a masterful job. He was at that point working with Terrence Malick. He asked me if I could be with Malick the executive producers of the film that he’s doing. I thing its funding from Dubai and was filmed all over the world in time lapse. Quite a beautiful film. It’s now in editing in Austin and it should be ready by the end of this year.
Do you have a new project of your own?
We are now on the verge to make another film, if we find an angel willing to back it. A fairy tale for children. Not a fairy tale about the fantasy of the world they live in, but the climate catastrophe that has become their fate. The point of view of this film, called Once Within a Time, is that children are embedded in destiny. However, all destiny may be resisted. So, these children in this film resist destiny. I am very please that it would be the first narrative effort that Philip and I have made. We’ll have a classically trained buffoon, who studied in Paris and Italy. Someone who speak in our first Lingua Franca, body language, facial expression, eye behavior. This would be an anarchic comedic fairy tale on the tragedy of environment for children and the child within us all. This film for children is standing Koyaanisqatsi‘s shoulders, but we are taking a step beyond making it overtly narrative, but in a speechless form again in the first Lingua Franca of body language, facial expression and eye behavior. It’s similar but quite different in an attempt to make it more accessible to more people. We have to find the financing to do that. And of course, your article in Paris might bring us that money!
I hope so!
That is how Naqoyqatsi was funded, through an article that appeared in the New York Times and, within the day it appeared, Steven Soderbergh got in touch and say: “How can I help you make this film?” I’ve been planning it since 2014, and of course no one want these films into their made. We are outsiders. We don’t fit commercial portfolios, but we have something that can truly touch children and no one is really talking to them about this. This is not a practical film about solar panels and sustainable living. Many people have done that and good. This is more addressed to the heart of the child to motivate them to the world they live in.
What would you like to tell to the people who will experience ou re-experience Koyaanisqatsi in 2018?
I would like to tell them that not only the blind can not see. That we live in a world where the main events are right in front of us and they’re present but we don’t see them. Koyaanisqatsi may — just perhaps, may — offer the opportunity through an art form to re-see the world we live in. Now especially, but to all of the turmoil that so obvious on our planet. It seems that we are looking at the world we live in, is probably the most important thing we can do. There is an old chinese statement that says in time of maximum social crisis, the most important thing is to rename the world in which we live. Koyaanisqatsi is an attempt through the image, the meta language of art, to rename the world in which we live.