The meaning of Koyaanisqatsi was said by the director, Godfrey Reggio, to not have specific meaning or value, that film is an animated object and meaning is open to interpretation from the viewer. He said that the purpose of the documentary-style film was to provoke questions from the viewer, to initiate a thinking process. The power of the film comes from the meaning being independent to each viewer.
Koyaanisqatsi shows a juxtaposition between the natural and the man-made, documenting humanity’s growing reliance on technology as a society.
The work Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word for “life out of balance”, also “life disintegrating” or “life that calls for another way of living”. The selection of this title suggests that Reggio has a pessimistic view of the evolution of technology due to the meanings of the word having negative connotations.
The film is commonly perceived to be anti-technology. The jarring images of natural and man-made showing humanity’s destructive ways.
Reggio’s technique uses a combination of real time footage, subjects in slow motion and time lapse photography. The slow motion is typically used in scenes showing natural imagery and the time lapse showing the fast paced busy life of human day to day life. The change of pace contributes to the contrast between the two elements, the natural is peaceful and the slow motion allows the viewer to take it in and admire the beautiful scenes and then this imagery is jarred with the overwhelming bustle of human activity. The fast pace in reference to the technology aspects mirrors the way in which technology has integrated into society and how for some parts of the world has quickly risen from a wild luxury and example of modern times to a near necessity
Described as “non-narrative” in The Film Experience by Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White, the lack of narrative in Koyaanisqatsi gives strength to other techniques and qualities of the film such as the contrast between imagery, therefore giving a more powerful effect.
There is no dialogue, characters, plot or narrative structure in the film allowing the narrative to be the viewer’s thoughts throughout. This makes the film a lot more personal, and therefore effective, on the viewer.
Some see the film as a documentation of humanity’s reliance on technology and man’s destructive place in the world. Others see Koyaanisqatsi as an ode to technology and feel it provokes feeling of awe at the world and technology’s speedious growth into society from a luxury to almost a necessity.
References and Themes
Themes of Koyaanisqatsi include environment, technology, humanity and destruction. It explores humanity’s mark on the world and through contrasting images implies that it is an effect that is a concern in how our obsession with modern technology distracts us from what we should appreciate and nurture.
Structure and Sequencing
Koyaanisqatsi opens with imagery of Native American cave drawings, zooming outward with chanting of the word ‘Koyaanisqatsi’. Following is images of destruction and man made objects such as rockets, demolition of buildings and army tanks. These images are interjected with contrasting scenes such as clouds and aerial views of valleys and water.
The interweaving of these contrasting images are effective in making the viewer consider our effect on the environment and our relationship to the world in which we belong.
Symbolism and Metaphor
What makes Koyaanisqatsi so effective is that it doesn’t use symbolism or metaphor to convey a deeper message, it is almost documenting in how it creates an opportunity for social commentary with its confrontational window upon humanity and history. It’s plain presentation of the world to the viewer allows the viewer to come to their own conclusion; whether humanity’s allowing technology to continue to grow and dominate our culture is an awesome thing or something to be feared and abandoned.