This review was originally published during the New York Film Festival on October 1, 2013. It is being reposted now as the film is released to home video.
The Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard has produced a number of daring, conceptually interesting films over the last few years. Leviathan, which opened earlier this year, might be the most impressive. It’s a documentary characterized by unexpected, even shocking camera work and a stark commitment to its almost apocalyptic style. The audience spends most of its 98-minute running time feeling like horrified, insignificant fish forced to confront the vengeful face of God. While watching Manakamana, on the other hand, one spends 117 minutes feeling stuck on public transportation. Immersion is not, by definition, interesting.
Directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez went to Nepal to film, choosing the mountain temple of Manakamana as their subject. Specifically, their focus is the cable car that takes pilgrims over the foothills on their way to pay tribute to the goddess Bhagwati. Their method? Stick a 16mm camera on one of the cable cars, staring directly at those riding up (or d0wn), and see what happens. Repeat. The duration of a single trip in the cable car is about 9 minutes. Manakamana is an assembly of eleven of these trips, each of which is presented in its entirety.
On the one hand, this is a fascinating idea. It’s a cross-section of the many, many people who come to worship (or simply see the sights). Spray and Velez were careful to pick a wide assortment of travelers for the final cut, of all available ages and species. The first trip is taken by an old man and a young boy, presumably his grandson. There are young rockers in black band t-shirts, more traditional middle-aged musicians and an old woman struggling with some ice cream. There are also goats, taken up in a cargo crate to be sacrificed. Looming behind them all is the stunning, lush landscape of Nepal.
Of course, the foothills are only visible through the window of the cable car, which isn’t exactly ideal for sightseeing. Spray and Velez do not allow us a glimpse of the temple itself, either. This is a film about quiet anticipation, at least for the first six shots of the cable car ascending. The second five are the reverse, watching a number of pilgrims (and tourists) on their way down the mountain. Like Leviathan, Manakamana avoids all external context, which in this case even includes everything that happens outside of this enclosed space. The result is either rigorously fascinating or hopelessly boring, depending on how you like your ethnography.
Much of the power of Leviathan, after all, is in the element of surprise. It jumps from the ship to the sky without warning, maintaining a sense of wonder and unease. Manakamana is the exact opposite, perhaps the most structurally regimented film of the year. One of the young band members, in one of the earlier shots, even mentions the length of the cable car ride. For the entire remainder of the film, therefore, you know how long each shot will be. There is no sudden transcendence in Manakamana. Anything gained from the experience must happen gradually, and through an awful lot of patience.
At the end of the day, then, this is a film without too many answers. In letting its subjects speak for themselves, or not speak at all, it doesn’t really ask any questions either. It’s a lovely, occasionally charming, and rarely beautiful slice of life, but it doesn’t grasp for much more. Or, if it does, it doesn’t do a very good job at translating such transcendence to the audience.
Manakamana is now available on DVD and Blu-ray via Cinema Guild.