Directed by: Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez.
Manakamana is the third film from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) and all of them are different from each other and from anything else being produced right now. I don’t think I was fully prepared for Sweetgrass (2009) about sheepherders in Montana – which had little in the way of dialogue, and a lot of shots of lots of sheep moving through the mountains – along with their endless bleating. I appreciated last year`s Leviathan a lot more – about life on board a fishing boat –which contained some images that I will never forget, but also lacked much in the way of speaking. The latest film from the SEL is Manakamana – and like the other two films, it doesn’t make for the most exciting movie going experience – but does show you something you cannot see anywhere else – and does so in an interesting way. In Nepal, there is a Temple dedicated to the Goddess Manakamana a top a mountain. As we learn in the movie, it used to take three days to trek to the temple. Now, however, they have built a cable car which will take you there in 10 minutes. The film is made up of 11 journeys shot in their entirety either up or down the mountain; with a variety of different people (only one couple appears twice).
It would be easy to dismiss Manakamana as a stunt – or simple, as you could argue that all the directors – Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez – had to do is setup a camera and then edit the journeys together. But that’s not what they did – they were in the cable car for each journey, although they do not interact with the people in anyway. And I understand they spent quite some time in Nepal “casting” the film. They effect the movie has is precisely the one the filmmakers want.
So in the movie we watch as the variety of people either travels up or down the mountain on the cable car. The first is seemingly a grandfather and grandson, who simply sit there and do not speak to each other. Among the other couples are three long haired 20 something’s who joke around, and take pictures, three women seemingly married to the same man – who seem happy. Two older ladies eating ice cream. A couple of tourists. Once, it’s just a few goats in their – going up for reasons neither we nor they understand. The only couple who reappear is a married couple – the wife of which talks much more than the husband.
The film is somewhat enthralling and even haunting at times. Often, these people say little or nothing for minutes on end or even the entire trip. They look outside at all the trees, the river, the old trail, the villages they pass – some of which we see, some of which we do not. Sometimes they simply sit there and stare back into the camera. The effect when no one is talking is eerie – as if as we’re watching these people, they’re watching us right back.
It’s hard to describe the impact Manakamana has. By looking so closely at these people, for so long (and yes, 10 minutes doesn’t seem like a long time, but sit there and do nothing for 10 minutes once to see what the experience is like) – the movie illuminates them in unexpected ways – and ways that no interview with these same these people would never reveal. And if you open yourself up to it, you may even learn something about yourself as well. The film reminded me of the documentary from last year Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, which is about the performance’s artists exhibit, where she simply sat in a chair and stared back at whoever sat in the chair across the table from her. Putting the effect of either Abramovic’s exhibit or the effect of Manakamana into words is not really possible – it’s something you need to experience.
I will say this though – I’m really not sure we needed to go through this 11 times to get the same impact. For the first hour or so, I was enthralled in the movie, but in the second hour my mind started to wonder a little bit. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing, but movies like this are about what you think about when you are watching it as much as what’s onscreen.
So no, Manakamana is not the most exciting movie of the year – and many audiences would simply not be interested in seeing it. But to some, this will be one of the movie events of the year. Count me as somewhere in between those two extremes.