USA / 2013 / Nepali & English

Directed by Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez

Still from 'Manakamana'I notice when using the camera that, although he is not at all self-conscious, there is a faint suggestion of concern in the midst of his cordiality that whoever will see what he is doing will acknowledge his performance… I suppose his performance constitutes borderline acting but I cannot think this in any way subverts the process by which the camera finds significant expression.

– Robert Gardner, diary entry from June 21st 1981. Reprinted in The Impulse to Preserve

Since Gardner’s and Jean Rouch’s day, meta-ethnography has come a long way. The act of affixing imagery to people and their cultures was, in the latter 20th Century, awash with deep introspection, much of which has seeped away from it. What remains is Manakamana, a structuralist film that one hesitates indefinitely to call ethnography, a collision of graphic concerns and static people-watching that plies new boundaries for both.

Encounters have the ability to distance us from what we are seeing – mainly as a matter of form – only to draw us yet closer than we would expect. The opposite of this effect could be Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Leviathan (2013), which amplifies its subject (an ocean trawler) to an almost expressionist degree, having a fish-eye view that balloons things into distortion, with voices and noises blown out beyond recognition. It brings us so close that things appear hyperreal, crushing (rather than engaging) the senses. Manakamana came from the same Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University, but the two films couldn’t speak more dissimilar languages. Spray and Velez seat us in an odd, willfully unnatural position, and keep us there for several go-arounds.

The inverse point-of-view, the reverse-shot by itself, is the entirety of the frame. With the unwavering intimacy of the shot, we sit inside of a cable-car as it ascends and descends a mountain where the Manakamana shrine is located, near Gorkha, in Nepal. In the static frame, we see the trees and fields, the scattered houses dotting the mountain, as they soar downward, and swoop upward to be replaced by a clear blue sky. The glass of the cable car carries booms and reverberations, and the passengers notice their ears popping at the same points in the journey.

Within such a straightforwardly material film, there is the strange feeling of the goddess of the title, the granter of wishes, draping over the frame. Perhaps because she does exist in the minds of the people making the journey, she is a force with a form of a sort. We see people occupied by their thoughts as they approach the temple, perhaps deciding what they will ask the devi when they arrive. Some leave the temple in a celebratory mood, such as the two women who both try hard to consume an ice cream bar before the heat has melted it away. The hilarity of the scene, which gradually overtakes the mundane conversation the women are having, comes through because it’s so recognizable, even in across multiple divides. A man sits beside his frail wife, barely answering her utterances. The couple wear a meditative, inscrutable glaze.

Three chatty old ladies, apparently sharing a common husband back home, survey the land around them, and how it’s changed. They reflect on the way that the journey differs from the days when one had to walk hours up the hill to reach the Manakamana temple. Their short conversations offer the most poignant commentary on the changing world below, making an ancient journey in a modern conveyance. Religious pilgrimages in general have a de-localizing effect on those who do them, and this is expressed doubly in the unusual way they are getting there. Everyone feels the strangeness of it, but expresses that feeling in different ways.

Another interesting trio is the young men with long hair dressed in black, a rock group who play cover songs in bars. They joke and snap selfies, while a random kitten crawls over them, clinging on for dear life. The contrast between them and the two traditional sarangi players, who rehearse while waiting to arrive, would ordinarily feel artificial, too intentional. But since the film is so up-front about its artifice, that such a reaction is easily averted; we are locked into the long-form observation, the refreshing beauty of a contemporary actuality rendered on film stock, and the restricted format of the frame.

I have no idea what it would be like to say to Mama Marco: “Be yourself.” I have a feeling it would result in mere perplexity. The few times I have asked someone to do something for the camera, the results are usually hilarious renderings of what should be ordinary bits of behavior. On the other hand, I am sometimes most convinced by roles in films played by nonactors who have obviously been directed. How can things get more real than in The Bicycle Thief?

– Robert Gardner, diary entry from June 21st 1981. Reprinted in The Impulse to Preserve

Still from 'Manakamana'Before the viewer settles into the muffled level of expression given off by the film – the exasperating situation of watching small-talk and awkward co-existence, in nine-minute episodes – he or she awaits big revelations. In short order, that expectation is dismantled, and we find the rides themselves to be revelations, as well as what materializes in the film’s form. Some of the pieces have no speech, such as the first one, with an old man and a small boy, perhaps his grandson, watching through the glass with sets of eyes separated by a large valley of decades. Others have hardly-discernible speech, like a lone woman who bears a small statue and mutters to herself. Like all film actors, she is engaging in conversation with the audience, both known (the camera and filmmakers) and unknown (those who will eventually see the finished film).

While only some of the personal and the cultural significance (if those be separate things at all) can make it to the surface, the filmmakers do little to force them through. Their going conceits, derived from the traditional work that Spray has done regarding culture and environment, involve looking deeply into the mundane, and to heighten it (literally, in this case, by floating at high elevation with it) to excavate an emotional core.

In Nepal, a visit to a Hindu temple is one of the great equalizers of society; people from every walk of life engage in the activity, but do so with differing styles. It can be anything from a family outing to a solo mission, to a death’s-door pilgrimage. At a temple like Dakshinkali, where sacrifice is almost de rigeur, the wealthier a person is, the attendantly large an animal they’ll bring. Here the people ride the cable car bearing a variety of objects, such as flowers or even a live chicken. The one non-peopled trip is made by a group of goats tied together on a platform, uncomprehending of where they’re going or how they’re getting there. The contrast we notice between the different people – like the Kathmandu rockers and the quiet rural elders – is almost a given in Nepal. Here they are all doing exactly the same activity, but their expectations, feelings about it, and what they notice around them, are all distinct.

So, there is little suggesting that the people in the film were being brought outside of their comfort zones to appear in it (with the possible exception of a pair of foreign women, one of whom seems afraid of heights). The surreal element of gliding above the jungle makes the abnormal situation of having the filmmakers right there with them almost negligible. This isn’t everyday life we’re seeing, but a handful of its qualities embodied in a brief flight up a mountain.

The characters we meet in the film were known to the filmmakers beforehand and “cast” for it, vetted for it in a way that hapless pilgrims would not be. So there is a personal connection and a back-story to each of these vignettes, but very little in the way of conventional direction. The filmmakers have suggested that their subjects had as much input as they did on how the scenes should play out. What results is intriguing as a tangent to the actual ethnographic work that Spray has done with many of these people, like a bizarre epilogue to a series of stories we haven’t heard.

One rather astonishing critic asserted that Manakamana‘s chief failing is that it’s boring, apparently having missed out on both the intent and the experience of the film altogether. Calling it boring puts it in a binary with entertaining, which is part of the agenda of entertainment, but not of a film like this. It also discounts the positive challenge presented by boredom, the boredom of Buddhism, to engage with one’s surroundings. The film isn’t bracing like Leviathan, nor is it sweeping and gorgeous like Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass (2009), but it collects, in its smooth gliding and scoured Warholism, a series of sublime episodes that reward attentiveness and don’t thrust anything our way.

Still from 'Manakamana'If portraiture is one of Manakamana‘s main purposes, it takes that practice in a wonderfully expansive direction, making us aware of the shifting landscape appearing in the glass, registering (or at times not registering) on the faces of the passengers. The idea of capturing what is essentially the mechanical extension of a religious practice – ascending the mountain to ask that a wish be granted – fades very much to the background. The film provides no context or information, no flourishes of the beauty of the temple or the landscape, no thesis on cultural practices, or any invasive tries at depicting people during worship. It doesn’t show anything besides the people and what passes behind them. While the output is thus oblique to what we normally get from ethnography, the preoccupations remain the same, albeit approached with greater concentration.

The rigor of the format, the structure, the setting, all magnify the ways in which people “improvise” from moment to moment. The question – only still in question because it isn’t usually addressed – of how aware are the subjects of the camera, ceases to matter, and frees us to simply watch and see what will happen. We know we will only have nine minutes with each person, and feel like we are in the car with them. Each bump, shudder, and groan emitted by the cables, along with everything that makes it strange and unearthly, begin to be familiar.

Like in Jed Speare’s Folkways recording, Cable Car Soundscapes, the rhythmic qualities of the sounds shimmer with musicality, trembling with menace, extending into multiple registers. A low rumble beneath it all sounds like tympani, and the distant song of the wires blends with the nearer whir of the camera. Even in many films that try hard to accentuate it, wild sound is rarely as significant or immediate as it is here.

The form of the film, unavoidably its most talked-about feature, isn’t what makes it beautiful, ultimately. More important than attracting our attention, the form liberates everything we see depicted to be and, more importantly, become itself. We aren’t concentrating on the bigger issues of representation, of understanding or not understanding, on reading or misreading the images. These remain portraits – breathing, joke-cracking portraits – and aren’t tasked with representing something beyond that. Concerns like what Gardner thought about while making Ika Hands (1981) have been put through the ringer, and are thankfully made moot by Spray and Velez’s rather simple process. The question of who is the instigator ceases to bother us. They’ve struck the perfect balance between director and subject, and the result is more akin to Warhol’s films than Gardner’s, in the way that it relies on the improvising personalities before us, and not that of the directors, whose subtle manipulation of time occurs primarily in the sequencing.

A few times on this pilgrimage to those sacred places I felt I was witnessing something approaching rapture. I could not possibly have instructed Mama Marco in the fine points of that condition. I can only thank him after the fact for achieving it.

– Robert Gardner, diary entry from June 21st 1981. Reprinted in The Impulse to Preserve

The serial nature of how the film is sequenced carries implications of rebirth. Each shot begins in the darkness of the landing bay (f-stop set high for the sunlight), surrounded by mechanical clanging. When the film roll elapses, the image achieves a sort of moksa (freedom from reincarnation). The sound continues briefly, beyond its alignment with the picture, and we end our cyclical journey. Our eyes have traveled far, leveled with many others along the way, but haven’t left the confines of the cable car. That wonderful thought sits with us a moment, before vanishing again. The meaning of the command “be yourself” has been altered ever so slightly, and forever.


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