16-22 January 2015 #741

How not to make a documentary

'Manakamana' seems insulting both to the viewers and to the performers
David N Gellner

Anthropologist and film-maker Stephanie Spray has been working in Nepal since 1999, according to her website, particularly on the Gandharva or Gaine minstrel caste. It turns out, when the credits to her two-hour film, ‘Manakamana’, finally roll, that most of the people in it are Gandharvas, people mostly known to her for a long time (as the ‘film pack’, but not the film itself, makes clear).

The temple of the goddess Mankamana (as it is less misleadingly spelt) is probably the most popular pilgrimage site in Nepal. Since 1998 there has been a cable car, Nepal’s first, leading to the temple from the Kathmandu-Pokhara highway, which has surely much increased the number of pilgrims going there. The film, co-authored with film-maker and cameraman Pacho Velez, consists of eleven segments of about 10 minutes each, the first six shot in ascending cars or gondolas, the last five coming down. There are different sets of passengers each time, the only repetition being a couple who go up with a rooster and come down with its corpse, having sacrificed it at the temple at the top. The conceit of the film is that we experience each ascent and each descent in real time. We never see the temple or the queues or anything outside the small bubble of the gondola and the view outside, sometimes looking up the mountain and sometimes down.

The first ascent is an old man and a young boy in a baseball cap, one guesses his grandson. They both stare self-consciously away from the camera and say nothing for ten minutes. One assumes that the cameraman and sound recordist are standing in the gondola with them and that they have been told not to look at the camera. At the end of the ascent, the gondola disappears into darkness. We don’t emerge into light on the path to the temple. Nor do we stay in the gondola for its descent down the mountain. Instead we suddenly switch to the bottom of the mountain for another ascent with new passengers.

The second ascent is a single woman in a red sari with a puja basket. She says nothing. There is no sound except the grinding of the cable car as it passes the pylons and an occasional distant bird or radio. She smiles at the camera momentarily, then looks away, impassive.

By this time, the audience is restless. Is the director playing with us? The frame is set. We realize that the film will consist of real-time ascents of the cable car, one after the other; every segment will last the full ten minutes, with the same views and the same soundtrack of cable car noises. We are trapped. No one is speaking. The people in the cable car also look trapped, uncomfortable in front of the camera. Why are Nepalis so polite? Why didn’t they tell the camera crew where to shove their intrusive camera and microphone?

The third ascent: this time it is a couple, going up together. They too look deeply uncomfortable as they strain to avoid facing the camera. But at last they start speaking. He has a rooster. He says he has forgotten his bag. She, it turns out, is deaf and has been to the temple before. On foot it took her three days from their village.

The next ascent has three companionable old ladies. They reflect on the old days. One of them is a natural-born storyteller and in order to pass the time she tells the myth of the Gosain and the goddess Kalika. This, at last, is engrossing, but they depart, never to be seen again.

Now we encounter some more engaging characters: three young men with long hair, who are clearly impatient with just looking out the window and start to be themselves. They each have cameras and take each other’s photos and play with the kitten they have brought with them. They joke about sacrificing it to the goddess. We learn that they are rock musicians, fed up with endlessly performing in bars. One of them has done a concert in Mankamana before.

The sixth ascent is an open crate with four or five goats. More silence. Seven minutes staring at the backside of a goat. Then darkness. Lots of temple bells ringing frantically combined with the grinding of metal on metal from the cable car. This darkness goes on for what feels like two or three minutes. Presumably we are meant to think about the goats being sacrificed.

Now we start the descents. A single woman in a red sari, a pink blouse, and a green wedding necklace. She looks around nervously, remarks that she has a nice souvenir, then silence. Ten more minutes of just watching someone be uneasy.

The next descent springs a surprise: a Western young woman and a Nepali young woman get in together. There is five minutes of silence as they look in opposite directions. With the camera so much in their face and pointing straight at their breasts, the audience doesn’t know where to look either. Then they talk and it turns out they are friends. Both speak American English. The White one confesses she doesn’t know what to write in her diary. Then that she isn’t a ‘middle hills kind of person’ (implying that she likes the high Himalayas and the lowland Tarai, but not what is in between). Her friend presses her and she says doesn’t much like trekking. The conversation is finally getting interesting when she says something about hoping she isn’t pregnant, but we are in darkness and we know this is all we will see of these characters.

The ninth trip, has two women, one old, one middle aged, coming down together. They have ice creams, but are slow to get them out, because of the inhibiting presence of the camera in the gondola. When they do get them out they start to melt in the heat, and drip all over their clothes. The women laugh at themselves but are determined to eat the ice creams before they melt away entirely.

The next trip consists of two musicians with minstrel harps (sarangi), obviously they are Gaine or Gandharvas. The older one talks about visiting Mankamana in the old days, before there were roads or buses. Then they decide to tune up and start playing. This is truly moving and a welcome change.

In the final descent we see the same couple as before. The man carries the corpse of the cockerel on his lap. They sit silently for a long time, till the wife says: our youngest daughter should have come. He replies, she wasn’t invited. More silence. The end.

The first thing one has to realize is that these are not real pilgrims, despite the fact that they are, most of them, going up the hill to worship at the temple. If the people in the cable car had been real pilgrims selected at random, one could have asked them where they were coming from and why they were coming. (Everyone comes for a reason; the clue is in the name of the goddess, ‘Heart’s Desire’.) Such questions would have been perfectly reasonable and culturally appropriate. The temple of Mankamana is not only one of the most popular and most visited in the country, it is also of great importance historically, connected as it is to the hill town of Gorkha and the Shah dynasty. But the film-makers clearly had no interest in Nepali history.

Whatever else it is, and despite its classification on IMDb, ‘Manakamana’ is not a documentary. It is not trying to learn, understand, or convey anything about Nepal. The filmmakers did not try to interview real pilgrims. What it is, is an art film. The actors are old friends and acquaintances of the film-maker, brought to Mankamana, placed in front of camera, as a kind of experiment, to see what they would do. (Hence the husband telling his wife that she was the one invited, not their daughter; hence the actors’ willingness to go along with a performance in which so many of them were manifestly uncomfortable.) The Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab out of which the film comes declares its aims to be go beyond film as foregrounding the verbal or trying to be a representation of an ethnographic text. That is fine, but the result is not a documentary, but an art film, with all the pretensions that brings with it. This is a film of fragments that challenges the viewers with the very tedium of the initial ascents. (At least four people, out of approximately forty, walked out of the cinema in which I saw it.) It feels intrusive and culturally inappropriate, in that most of the characters are not at ease in front of the camera and no attempt is made to put them at ease through dialogue. I hope that the actors were at least recompensed for their time and trouble. It is utterly staged and not like the chance encounters and exchange of views that happen between strangers on a bus in Nepal.

To imagine that sticking a camera in front of people, seeing what happens, and presenting the unedited results to an audience somehow gets closer to reality is a basic empiricist fallacy. We only grasp reality through concepts, through culture, and through narrative. A map that is the same size as the place it is a map of is no use. To imagine that sensory reality is beyond culture and concepts and needs no mediation is a positivist misapprehension. Contempt for narrative is a common intellectual conceit. At least this film does not imagine, as some have, that the words people say (when they do say something) are unimportant and don’t need to be translated. The technique of just letting the camera roll works when people are given long enough to explain themselves and tell their stories. In this case, that doesn’t happen.

Unfortunately the translation (Spray takes sole responsibility for the subtitles) isn’t always reliable. Perhaps the biggest error is the repeated translation of sallo (pine) tree as sāl (shorea robusta). The remark ‘this is like falling from an airplane’ is translated as ‘they must have built this from airplanes’. Sahili is translated as ‘second sister’ rather than ‘third sister’ – a trivial point perhaps, but not a mistake a Nepali would have made if responsibility for the translation had been shared. Nepalis will, no doubt, find many other small errors.

Since this is an art film eschewing explanation, context, history, and narrative, the audience is effectively invited to project onto it whatever Orientalist fantasies about Nepal they wish: the beauty of the hills (though the views are very moderate by Nepal’s spectacular standards and are anyway obscured by cloud for much of the time), the spirituality of the people, the clash of tradition with modernity, the cyclical nature of time, etc. Of course, this may be part of the point: deliberately to interrupt the viewers’ expectations of stories, to torture them with nothing to go on for twenty minutes, so that even the smallest piece of evidence sparks interpretive leaps, to force them to imagine stories on the basis of very little information. Some may find that brilliant. For me – and in the end, as the Latin saying has it, there can be no arguing about taste – because of its lack of curiosity, its insensitivity, its dishonesty (it is not ethnography, the players are not pilgrims), and its pretentiousness, ‘Manakamana’ seems insulting both to the viewers and to the performers. Some Nepalis, fed up with their country selling itself as a backdrop for Westerners’ fantasies, might go further and say that it is insulting to Nepal as well.

[Manakamana by Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez 2013 118 minutes Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab. UK release: 14 December 2014.]