Filmmaker Godfrey Reggio’s 1974 PSA’s warned of the coming surveillance state to control behavior

By on August 18, 2015

In 1974, future documentary filmmaker Godfrey Reggio — a community activist working on issues of health care and gang violence in New Mexico — ended up producing a series of Public Service Announcements (PSA’s) about privacy and the growing surveillance culture for the New Mexico Civil Liberties Union.

The campaign included billboards and full-page newspaper ads but it was Reggio’s PSA’s, broadcast on local TV channels broadcasting in the Northern New Mexico area, that drew the most attention. TV viewers would actually call TV stations asking when the station would air the ads next. Reggio’s next filmed project, Koyaanisqatsi, drew upon many of the production values evident in these brief but powerful PSA’s.

GODFREY REGGIO'S PSA 1

Reggio entered the world of experimental documentary filmmaking through an interesting portal. He was born in New Orleans, and raised in southwest Louisiana, and entered the Christian Brothers, a Roman Catholic pontifical order, in northern New Mexico, at age 14 and remained there for 14 years. Based in New Mexico, Reggio taught grade school, secondary school and college.

In 1963, he co-founded Young Citizens for Action, a community organization project that aided juvenile street gangs, and in the late sixties he co-founded a medical care facility in Santa Fe, New Mexico, called La Clinica de la Gente, which provided assistance to the region’s barrio neighborhoods. The facility also provided medical care to 12,000 community members in Santa Fe.

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In 1972, Reggio co-founded the Institute for Regional Education in Santa Fe, or “IRE,” a non-profit foundation focused on media development, the arts, community organization and research, and with backing initially from the ACLU, began a media campaign aimed at showing how technology was being used to control behavior and invade privacy.

He described his background here as coming out of a “a religious community, a Catholic monk, working with street gangs…”

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Reggio felt the PSA’s that were being shot for the institute weren’t working, so he created a new campaign, one that featured the extreme close-up of a human eye, beginning his longtime relationship working with cinematographer Ron Fricke for the purpose of creating visually stimulating TV ads that would then be aired during prime time programming.

The image of the eye was splashed across billboards in the Northern New Mexico area, and showed up in print ads (there were radio ads too), but it was the television commercial that really caught on—viewers actually called stations to see when the ad would air again. The PSA’s focused on a palpable fear about an unfeeling, authoritarian modernity, a historical period of technology and industrialization, rather than humanity.

They became so popular that the IRE was commissioned by the The New Mexico Civil Liberties Union to continue to create PSA’s warning of the growing surveillance culture.

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As a result, school districts in New Mexico were able to get Ritalin eliminated as a behavior-modifying drug in New Mexico schools. Reggio realized that the images he was creating for these TV ads could be expanded to a feature-length documentary, but after the successful TV campaign ended, the ACLU withdrew their funding. As there was only $40,000 left in the IRE institute’s budget, which was not quite enough to make a feature film, Reggio and the institute first tried unsuccessfully to raise the money to keep the film project going, at a fundraiser in Washington D.C., but undeterred Reggio and Fricke kept filming, at first using 16mm film due to budget constraints.

Fricke suggested the remaining money be used to fund a full-length film: Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, the first installment of his avant-garde “Qatsi” trilogy, which we’ll be telling you about in a future Night Flight post.

GODFREY REGGIO'S PSA 2

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.