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[Documentary Review] Of Powaqqatsi and Taro - The hidden gems from the corners of the World Wide Web


One fine day, when I was binging on random music videos on YouTube (my guilty pleasure) I landed upon a song by Alt J, an English Indie rock band that emerged on the scene back in 2012, when I was my twelve-year-old self discovering the hidden corners of the World Wide Web. Back then, I was stuck on Taylor Swift, and it would take me three or four more years to finally get on-board the Indie and Rock music bandwagon; to finally add the likes of Arctic monkeys, Alt J, The Black keys, and more to my religious playlists overflowing with music, that I painstakingly listened to, curated, watched, read about and adored to the point that I still feel possessive of them. So, Alt J came to me as a breath of fresh air in the form of 'Taro', a song.

Before I tell you the unique story behind this gem, it would be nice if you could just tune in to the music first; let it make you feel things, and then come back here to know what it all means. On YouTube, a particular fan edit (Alt-J (∆) - Taro) of the song in the form of a music video has garnered more than 87 million views. This is a classic case of a fan edit receiving more views than the original song's video. But leaving out the statistics, the pure genius of the music lies in the absurd and unexpected lyrics that will make you confused to the point that you move to the comment section to get an answer to the one question - 'Well what the hell is going on?!'

The video, the song, and the lyrics may move you, but trying to figure out the meaning would baffle you. Visualize yourself sitting in your car, driving someplace, looking outside the window at people foreign to you, wanting to connect with them, but the boundaries may be too many and their life so different from yours that the only way you could ever cross paths would be while driving on the road, traveling in a train, a bus or even a plane.

We receive news from all parts of the world on our tiny phones, we learn about the existence of different cultures, people, and ideas that coexist in the same time and space as ours but on different wavelengths; it often feels as if the connection is nothing more than an illusion, for it won't be false to say that you can look at a photograph, watch a video but never really see the moment from the perspective of those in it. Their lives and stories, much like your own, will remain a mysterious history. And so it is that looking can never make up for the experience that is living; a photograph limits so much more than what it exposes, all art forms do in most ways. But, despite these limitations, all forms of art help bridge the gap between what is 'real' and 'reel'.

So what is it that Taro wants to say, and is it worth saying? Let us explore the art of finding some hidden gems on the World Wide Web for they are worth it, as most hidden things usually are.

Taro - Who? What? Why?

“Burst so high finally Capa lands,

Mine is a watery pit.

Painless with immense distance

from medic from colleague, friend, enemy,

foe, him five yards from his leg,

from you Taro.”

~ Lyrics from 'Taro' the song by Alt J

(To understand the full lyrics - check out these remarkable annotations - ​​alt-J – Taro Lyrics)

Gerta Phoroylle, professionally known as Gerda Taro was a German-Jewish war photographer, who was known for being quite active as a photojournalist during the Spanish Civil War. Like all great epics and sagas, this is a love story, not a Nicholas Sparks one, but quite a modern-day Shakespearean tragedy in the jaws of war. Back in 1934, she met Endre Friedmann, from whom she learned photography, and went on to become his assistant. Gerda and Endre fell in love and for both personal and professional reasons, decided to change their names, to overcome the political intolerance plaguing Europe during that time. Gerta became Gerda and Endre became Robert Capa. Their journey together led them to many places and established them for what they did best, showing the reality of wartime through photographs. Capa and Taro became quite like De Beauvoir and Sartre, Bonnie and Clyde, but their story met a fatal ending. During her coverage of some wounded soldiers, Gerda stood on top of a car only to suffer critical wounds as a tank crashed into its side. She succumbed to the injuries, leaving Capa and his world blending into darkness.

The song almost feels like a eulogy for both; it has a characteristic style of a statement, a piece of lyrical or musical journalism if one might say. Robert Capa died in 1954, in Vietnam. The song describes the events that unfolded on the day he met this fate. It was when he was photographing in Indo-China. Time has a more detailed article on him as well as an interesting quote: “This is going to be a beautiful story", he said as he set out from the village of Nam Dinh, in Vietnam’s Red River delta, on May 25, the last morning of his life. “I will be on my good behavior today. I will not insult my colleagues, and I will not once mention the excellence of my work.” Eight hours and 30 km later, Capa was dead, killed by a landmine at Thai Binh, as he tried to get just a little bit closer to the site.

To say that a song like 'Taro' made me feel more humane would be an understatement; to say that it made me acknowledge the glaring realities of human existence, the loneliness, the hollowness, the chaos, and most of all the ever-encompassing scent of love even among war, the truth. A Gerda and Capo in every square, struggling to make something out of nothing, even in the face of adversity and death; they did not fear and continued to interact with the people of the world invading their privacy by offering their own, invading their vulnerable spaces in the clutches of conflict, to capture the true picture of “blood, sweat and tears” for a morally corrupt world ever so hungry for blood.

A song so strong would surely stand on its own feet, but the visuals added through a fan edit by Burkhart (Alt-J (∆) - Taro) did a remarkable job at amplifying the essence of everything that the lyrics could not convey on their own. A lonesome person from some corner of the world, comments under the video (and aptly so), “When I listen to this song, I live a million lives.” Such is the beauty of some spaces on the World Wide Web, where you find a connection with strangers; understanding in a mere comment box, and humanity in a digital universe.

Another comment says, “If aliens ever find us, this should be their first impression of humanity.” I agree with them; this and not the towering cities of plastic and metallic mortality, not the shiny and glossy billboards of propaganda, and not an image of indifference, for there is too much indifference erasing all the difference, under the guise of Globalisation and all other '-isms' and '-ations' overflowing in the empty libraries and classrooms (all empty now, a signal to the world during this pandemic of our times).

The Qatsi Trilogy

Here it is my privilege to introduce to you Powaqqatsi: Life in transformation, the genius documentary by Godfrey Reggio that made this music video into a sensation. Burkhart (the YouTuber responsible for the fan-edit) took visuals from this film and fit them into the song, giving a face to the words, an identity to the humanity that we all feel while listening to this marvel. Powaqqatsi is the second film in the Qatsi Trilogy (Watch here : Powaqqatsi) along with Naqoyqatsi and Koyaanisqatsi. These are experimental films, projecting the conflict in third world countries, between the traditional ways of living and changes brought on by Industrialisation. 'Powaqqatsi' literally means 'a parasitic way of life'. It originates from the North American Native Tribe called 'Hopi'. I am attaching my rough observations from the film, in their raw form as a poem -

A sea of laborers covered in mud and dust,

walking over a hill like an army of ants

carrying cement bags with piercing stares

that will tug into your heart and gaze into your eyes.

Walking, climbing, carrying, sweating,

flesh and earth,

in search of dignity?

In search of a breath of life?

Falling, from exhaustion, hunger, and disease,

fighting heat, fighting death.

Flurry of images, synchronized to the beats

of lively music, strong legs, strong bodies,

they look at the camera sometimes,

the fallen being carried on the same shoulders.

Never stopping, like a conveyor belt,

tired, but helpless, It is their necessitation,

that drives them, not their dreams,

not their dreams.

Flashes on-screen, bright in red as haunting music plays,

sunset and shadows, woman carrying heavy loads

on her head, a boy follows.

They march into the orange,

emerge from the world,

one by one, only to go back.

Men walking into the haze, as if walking right into

the confusion of life or rather the disparity of the world.

A Boat carrying heavy loads and people,

Action glorified in every frame;

fishing, foraging, man and nature,

in complete unison, all the elements of the planet

driving life forward in complete harmony,

as they reap the meager benefits of existence in myriad ways.

Water gushing down, falling from below,

a house, a lady in red Indian attire, walks into a shack,

escaping the scorching heat of the desert lands.

The camera moves slowly, into the homes,

us, outsiders, peering in, into the lives of a village,

a group of boys racing, hungry eyes of children,

curious, it seems as if they are aware we are watching them.

Fascinated with our fascination of them, shocked even,

I see God in each eye, I see life in each God,

God is a human

there is so much life in the visuals, and the camera respects it;

Skills, wheels, move, move, the world moves,

it owes a debt to nature, yes, but the labor of men more so,

labor of children even more so, labor of women denied.

All children of the earth, animals, humans, tools,

In the eyes of the capitalist, but so much benevolence in each eye,

so much power in the weak, in the helpless, so much pain.

The sun rises, on a hill,

a Buddhist chant, as the wheel rotates

a monk starts his day, a man prays, children remind us,

of fragility in humanity,

humanity in fragility.

Ghats are home to a lady that prays, dipping in water,

seems like an invasion of privacy;

so much for western intellectual entertainment?

Sea of people, immersed in culture,

smiling, inspire with a curve of the lips,

a naked little boy, walks into the sea, innocence in blue;

Train speeding up, Industrialisation eating up, burping buildings,

artificial, and colorless, in their sharp styles,

a complete contrast from the living quarters of earth dwellers.

Cinematic shots of material people,

packaged beauties, designed emotions, and consumerism.

Reporters reporting, tanks coming in, conflict seeping into war,

The internet explodes

clouds of an imagination

and lies.

Trapped inside the white walls built on human shoulders,

insidious and haunting,

what civilization can create!

A victim, but who?

Us or them?

Us and them,

our world.


From the above discussion, it all comes down to the fact that Taro, Capa, Alt J, Powaqqatsi, and all of us shouting over the internet, are saying the same thing; much like these gems in the form of music, films, and ideas. We are nothing but a marvelous portrait of the diverse differences, merging and splitting, the way we live in this world, not alone, but with the growing influence of industrialization and each other. From the hidden corners of the world wide web, all of us are seeking dignity, understanding, and acceptance. We are conjuring love in the face of war, a war within ourselves, with each other. The end of it is not in sight, nor is the beginning, but these are interesting times to live, to exist, and to love. We should do all three, as much as we can, and strive to create a world, where there is more dignity in life than there is in death, I am sure Capa and Taro would want that, wherever they are watching us over from. We are the hidden gems of the world wide web, searching for ourselves in every other thing, it is quite inevitable there will be more like us, after we leave, to watch Taro - by Alt J and feel all of what we have felt, maybe something even more, but the message will remain the same. Find it, the dignity in life that you seek, and then pass it on, pass it on and pass it on for the better. Who knew it could be that easy to change the world?

A Night Owl original, this piece has been authored by Yastika Sharma.



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