In a cluttered warehouse within an undisclosed location somewhere in Santa Fe, I sit across from filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, the iconic director of such legendary works as the Qatsi Trilogy of Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi, as well as Anima Mundi, Visitors and others. I’ve come to Reggio’s live/work space to query about his newest work, Once Within a Time, a short yet sprawling experimental number that examines art, technology and human existence. Reggio calls it “a bardic tale,” because “the fairytales have happy endings,” and it has been making the rounds at various festivals and screenings. Time made its premiere at the Santa Fe International Film Festival last year, and hits the Center for Contemporary Arts this Friday as part of the nonprofit’s Godfrey Reggio Restrospective Week alongside all the aforementioned films, various shorts, an exhibit of drawings, writings and concept boards plus a pair of discussions featuring Reggio himself.
When the filmmaker asks if I’ve seen Once Within a Time, I stumble through some pathetic excuse: I’ve seen snippets, a trailer, maybe. When he asks if I’ve seen the making-of documentary short that will accompany the CCA screening, I admit I haven’t.
“Let’s just watch them,” he says.
Not what I’d planned, but smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em, I say.
“Here’s the thing,” Reggio says as he searches his TV for the film files. “Because I’m now a thousand and four months old, it looks like I’m dying. So the attention comes to me. But I always work with people more talented than myself—Philip Glass the composer, Jon Kane the co-director. But art, if you’re lucky, is done on the tableau of the subconscious, and I have to be everything from a mother to an assassin. I only have myself to please.”
Someone warned me about this just last week. Reggio, now 83, takes conversations to places unexpected, and I can’t read him in the slightest. He’s warm and inviting, sure, but intimidating. To diffuse the self-imposed tension, I mention something about that; about how writers from interviews I’ve read seem to structure their questions in the most intellectual ways possible, so I’m worried I might need to do that, too.
“We know nothing about our subconscious,” Reggio replies while also continuing his previous thought. “But it controls our reptilian brain. The right hemisphere is the hemisphere of logic; the left is the place of dreams. You have your own dreaming experiences, and these can talk to your left brain and raise questions only an audience can answer.”
Weirdly, that’s comforting. Perhaps Reggio’s manner of speaking, like his films, are a matter of my own perspective. He can’t possibly tell me how to feel about speaking with him. It’s also not his job to comfort me. Still, I breathe easier.
And so Reggio starts the Once Within a Time making-of doc on the television. It is is a short affair, not quite 30 minutes, but full of valuable information that completely re-contextualizes my preconceived notions about what a modern-day Reggio movie might be like. I’m delighted to see Santa Fe faces like performer/vocalist Tara Khozein (billed here as Tara Starling Khozein), performer/artist Apollo Garcia Orellana and Theater Grottesco stalwart John Flax. I’m weirded out to see Mike Tyson, the boxer, has taken a role in Time, but the making-of doc does an excellent job of framing why that’s strange in the right way, why Reggio wanted Tyson in the first place (something about the wisdom conveyed in Tyson’s eyes) and why it works.
This doc is like a crib sheet for how Time came to be. Reggio took years to make it work: a project free of any dialogue or overt narrative; a world of CGI and miniatures crafted by Broadway set designers available because of the pandemic; a team of colorists and CGI artists who wanted to get weird with a storied director. Together with a cadre of other artists, filmmakers, theater pros, composers, actors, non-actors, children, vocalists designers and fellow weirdos, Reggio took over a section of Brooklyn, New York’s opticnerve production studios, and they went nuts collaborating with each other at a time when COVID-19 was still a concern. Reggio picked up the virus at some point, by the way, and everyone thought he’d die. Clearly he didn’t.
When Reggio starts the real film, I am rapt. Yes, Once Within a Time lacks an overt narrative, but for anyone familiar with storytelling devices dating back to the Bible, plucking a story from the film’s lush imagery is a snap. In short, an omnipresent cadre of children navigates a world besieged by technology. They share a sort of Garden of Eden with a childlike pair of twins played by Garcia Orellana and Khozein, but when they taste an apple offered by a man in a literal apple suit (Brian Belott), they’re thrust into newer, colder environs. The world turns; the tech evolves; the Trojan Horse bearing hero children is built with discarded computer parts. But isolation sets in. We stare at our phones while nature languishes. Tyson appears as a shaman. Glass’s compositions—rounded out with additions by actor/composer Sussan Deyhim—provide a loose emotional guide. The children are the film’s heroes; Garcia Orellana and Khozein are its voyagers.
“It felt a lot like the way I’ve always worked,” Khozein tells SFR from her home in Budapest some days later. “The way this film was made was not the way films are made: We had a year and a half of generating material...working with miniatures and green screens; everything in a room too small for what we were trying to do. In a lot of ways, I’m kind of anti-documentation—I like that live performance goes away—but a lot of people involved in this film believed in Godfrey and wanted to support his vision.”
It was a deeply collaborative project, Khozein says, as does Flax, who adds that he first joined the project in 2014 after Reggio approached him following a Grottesco performance.
“It was both comfortable and a challenge,” Flax explains of his contributions, “and the film went through all kinds of iterations for what it was to become. I’d work with Godfrey again in a nanosecond, though. He gives [his collaborators] time, his thoughts. Everyone’s input was valuable.”
Back in Reggio’s warehouse, he explains the ultimate ethos.
“When I make a film—and I’ve made 11 now—the audience completes the subject,” he says. “It’s like a story kids have at bedtime; and they say, ‘Play it again, mama! Do that again, mama!’ If stories work, kids want to hear them over and over again.”
I think about the film for days. Dammit, he’s right. I want to see it again. And maybe again.
Godfrey Reggio Retrospective Week: Various times Friday, Nov. 10-Thursday, Nov. 16. $8-$13. Center for Contemporary Arts, 1050 Old Pecos Trail, (505) 982-1338; ccasantafe.org
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Reggio’s newest film would make its premiere in Santa Fe this week. It screened at the 2022 Santa Fe International Film Festival first.