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Life Out of Balance: Revisiting Koyaanisqatsi in Lockdown

by Darius Hosseini

"Our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live"

Housebound Mundanity

Five weeks into lockdown and so many of us are anxiously waiting for our lives to return to ‘normal’.

But should we fall back on old habits, or should this hiatus inspire us to approach society differently?

Some of us are able to remain inside in the company of family or friends, while others - myself included - rely entirely on seeking comfort in the arts. Never have the arts felt so important, and although creativity may be greatly restricted by current circumstances, there is a plethora of existing content accessible from the comfort of our homes. Cinema in particular offers a great means of escape from the mundanity of being housebound.

‘Koyaanisqatsi' is a Native American word belonging to the Hopi tribe, and means ‘life of moral corruption and turmoil’, or simply ‘life out of balance’

One film that has struck me as being particularly poignant during these unprecedented times is Koyaanisqatsi, an experimental film that contrasts the natural world with urban life. ‘Koyaanisqatsi' is a Native American word belonging to the Hopi tribe, and means ‘life of moral corruption and turmoil’, or simply ‘life out of balance’.

There are no words spoken throughout the film’s 87 minute running time, just a continuous stream of imagery that showcases the beauty (and ugliness) of the Western world, matched harmoniously with a mesmerising score composed by Philip Glass, arguably the most important composer of the late 20th century.

Regarding the lack of dialogue, director Godfrey Reggio states:“It’s not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live”.

Still: Koyaanisqatsi (1982, dir. Godfrey Reggio)

With production for Koyaanisqatsi beginning as early as 1975, it would take a full 7 years before the film’s completion and subsequent premiere. It has since developed a cult reputation and has grown increasingly relevant with our growing awareness of climate change. In a 2002 interview however, Reggio remarked “It’s meant to offer an experience, rather than an idea. For some people, it’s an environmental film. For some, it’s an ode to technology. For some people, it’s a piece of shit. Or it moves people deeply. It depends on who you ask. It is the journey that is the objective.”

The Day of Purification

Koyaanisqatsi’s ‘narrative’ - if you can call it that - relies entirely on its pacing and juxtaposition of imagery.

Beginning in the vast barren canyons of Utah, the film documents various forces of nature; clouds manipulated by the wind, water cascading over a cliff, sunlight casting shadows over desert plains, and so on. Eventually these natural landscapes are invaded by manmade structures, from towering electricity pylons that stretch for miles, to nuclear power plants that create clouds of their own.

By the time we reach New York City, the tranquility of nature has become entirely replaced by the frenetic energy of urban life, with rapid time-lapse footage of traffic and moving crowds. Vast numbers of people scurry like ant colonies in and out of frame, a far cry from what the streets must look like in the midst of lockdown today. We’re confronted by the chaos of public spaces like high streets, train stations, airports, supermarkets and office blocks, and bear witness to the peculiar manufacturing processes of clothing, car parts and hot dogs. These scenes are interspersed with portraits that give us rare opportunities to stare directly into the eyes of strangers, without the discomfort of breaking social norms.

The film concludes with an extraordinarily poignant shot of a piece of space shuttle debris falling towards earth, while three Hopi prophecies are sung by a choral ensemble conducted by Glass. We’re then offered their written translations:

‘If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.’

‘Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.’

‘A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.’

Interestingly, each one of these prophecies has been represented by some form of visual allegory during the course of the film.

Without uttering a single word, Koyaanisqatsi manages to highlight the absurdity of urban life by viewing society through the lens of a camera, and proves that everyday life is fascinating enough without the addition of Hollywood tropes and special effects. The film reminds us that we exist within our own bubble, while providing that rare opportunity to detach ourselves from the constructs of our society. Our attention is frequently drawn to inanimate objects and everyday situations that rarely warrant thought, in a manner akin to Sartrean philosophy.

Living Technology

Koyaanisqatsi’s commercial success was greatly aided by renowned filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather Trilogy and Apocalypse Now. Having attended a private screening, Coppola told Reggio that he had been waiting for such a film, stressing that it was “important for people to see”, attaching his name to the credits and supporting the film’s distribution (Coppola’s only contribution to the film itself is the opening and closing shots of pictographs from the Great Gallery at Horseshoe Canyon in Utah, which he claimed to be fascinated by).

Two sequels would later follow: Powaqqatsi (1988), which focused on third world nations of the Southern Hemisphere, and Naqoyqatsi (2002), the most ambitious and arguably least effective film of the trilogy, which incorporates computer generated imagery to simulate the transition from the natural world to the digital. Speaking in response to the trilogy as a whole, Reggio states “It’s not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe.” This understanding of our relationship with technology has never been more pertinent than it is today, in a time when we must refrain from venturing outdoors and physically distance ourselves from each other.

Koyaanisqatsi may have been the first of its kind, but cinematographer Ron Fricke would later go on to direct two of his own acclaimed non-verbal documentary films, Baraka (1992) and Samsara (2011). Very much in the vein of the Qatsi trilogy, these two films explore life, art and nature on a more global scale and benefit from a much higher budget and more advanced technologies, including the use of 70mm film.

With lockdown having driven society to a halt, this is the best opportunity we’ve been given to reassess the lives we had grown accustomed to. Whether you simply require cinema as a means of escaping the routine of day-to-day life, or you intend to seek some form of enlightenment through art, Koyaanisqatsi makes for essential viewing.


Darius Hosseini is a UK-based writer.


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