The latest from Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (the same team who brought us last year’s Leviathan), Manakamana (2013) is another non-narrative, observational portrait of life that eschews conventional storytelling in favour of a meditative approach to documentary filmmaking. Using a Nepalese cable car as the stage for a study of human spirituality, directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez have crafted a delicate representation of life in contemporary Nepal. The cable car transports people from the Gorkha town of Cheres, 1302 metres above sea level, to the Manakamana Temple. Each journey takes roughly ten minutes – conveniently the runtime of a roll of 16mm film.
In earlier times, the pilgrimage to the temple would have entailed an up hill trek that otherwise could have taken days. Whilst this cable car makes the temple accessible to the area’s more elderly and infirm, it could also be seen as another example of modern technologies capacity for striping away the spiritual significance of a cherished cultural experiences. Manakamana bursts into life with the crashing sound of mechanical gears before a burst of light projects us from the darkness into the Nepalese countryside. Spray and Velez simply positioned a camera in a cable car carriage and recorded – in real-time – eleven journeys of nine different passengers (including in one instance some goats who recall the four-legged frolicking of Michelangelo Frammartino’s 2010 gem, Le Quattro Volte).
It’s a simple conceit that harvests a wealth of information, with the window of the cable car framing the film’s subjects as we observe the beautiful scenery passing by in the background. The subjects rarely speak (and when they do their conversations seldom surpass the mundane and unremarkable), yet this incredibly simple, humanist approach allows for great reflection, as well as a spiritual and emotional connection to be forged with the passengers. Manakamana’s repetitive and purposefully languid voyage back and forth up the mountain will no doubt deter some, but this naturalistic process allows for little nuances of human interaction and the unnoticed shifts in mood and ambiance to become magnified. By allowing the audience to share a cable car with their subjects, Spray and Velez have created a film that transcends ethnographic fetishism and allows for deeper contemplation.
Manakamana featured in CineVue’s ‘Best films of 2014’ feature. You can read the full list here.