Manakamana is a structurally formal, but groundbreaking documentary which requires a great deal of patience on the viewer’s part.
An elderly Nepali man and a young child sit tensely inside a cable car as it climbs up to the temple of the wish-granting goddess, Manakamana.
They stare outside, not speaking a word. The camera stays on them, and the deafening silence between the two speaks volumes about their relationship. When the pair arrive at their destination, others take their place and the cable car makes its return trip.
This unusual filming technique and its protagonists has earned the documentary Manakamana critical acclaim for the director duo Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. The film is being released in cinemas in North America in mid-April.
The camera plays the role of an eavesdropper of sorts, placing the audience as an omnipresent, invisible viewer. The journey to this mystical mountaintop temple takes ten minutes each way, and the film is a collage of short vignettes which record the reaction of the subjects to the ride.
Manakamana is not for the impatient. The fixed frame forces audiences to take in the same view throughout the whole film, which might not engage everyone. At the Locarno Film Festival last year, there were quite a few walkouts from the audience. The first passengers do not even talk, and it feels like a momentous occasion when the audio finally comes in 20 minutes into the show.
The deliberate, initial trudge of the film however does not do it any disservice, as viewers who stick around for the whole two hours will find out. The film picks up speed and eventually launches into full scale sensory input, complete with music and slapstick comedy.
Spray and Velez have managed to piece together an enlightening documentary that, while artificial at its core, feels so undeniably natural. Even without leaving the claustrophobic confines of the 5-by-5 metallic cable car, audiences will leave the theatre with an understanding of not just the mysterious wish-granting temple itself, but the kind of devotees it attracts.
Making the decision to use celluloid film instead of digital was more than just an aesthetic choice. According to Spray, “The time that elapses over a 400’ magazine of 16 mm film is roughly how long it takes for a ride up or down the mountain,” lending a structural integrity to the film. Perhaps celluloid was also more appropriate considering how one of the film’s primary themes is the juxtaposition between the young and the old.
“Film is beautiful, and messy in just the right ways,” says Velez, “a clean, crisp digital image would have felt incongruous. It would have allied the film’s aesthetics with the engineers who designed the cable car instead of the locals who use it.” The choice to use film, he says, sought to “combine portraiture and landscape in a more rigorous, sustained way”.
The success of Manakamana lies in its brewing anticipation. Those expecting a typical ending or sense of coda will likely be disappointed, but the film rewards the patient viewer in other ways. Being made to stare at the same shot forces viewers to internalise everything on the screen, with compounded meaning of the quiet insights that the film is full of.
Just like how the characters stare out of the windows of the cable car and ponder the significance of the temple, audiences will get to observe the characters, and through them glean glorious insight into the human landscape.
Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, 2013