A purifying moviegoing experience, Manakamana consists of a series of single takes, each about 10 minutes long and focusing on the passengers of a cable car as it travels up or down a mountain in Nepal. (The film’s name comes from the temple situated at the top.) It has the sort of simplicity that makes you realize how much density there is in the average movie – and how empty so many of them are despite their busyness.
Manakamana is a project of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, which also produced the even more formally extreme Leviathan. Both documentaries open in darkness, as if to sharpen our senses. In Manakamana, we hear the clanking of the car leaving the station, eventually see the glimmer of silhouettes and then – bang! – we’re out in the daylight, high above the trees, directly facing an older man and a little boy staring placidly towards the camera. Behind them, the hills and clouds pass by like the clearest rear projection you’ve ever seen.
Despite the sparseness of the setup, there is so much to notice: the juxtaposition of the older man’s traditional hat with the boy’s baseball cap; the varied formations of the clouds when we switch from one cable ride to another; the rooster who peeks into the camera during a later trip. The structure even functions as a study in film theory. You’d be hard pressed to find a better demonstration of the differing psychological effects of a forward tracking shot (as when the camera faces in the direction the car is heading, with objects coming toward it) and a backward one (where objects appear from “behind” the camera and fade away).
It may strike some as claustrophobically dull, but for me each ride felt like a refuge.
I’m not sure how incisive Manakamana is as anthropology, given that all of the subjects were well aware that they were sitting underneath a microscope of sorts for these 10 minutes. (Directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez were always in the car with their equipment.) You can catch the riders glancing at the camera here and there, and the conversations occasionally have the feel of being held for our benefit more than anyone else’s. Yet there’s no denying that in fashion alone the movie is rich in cultural detail, from the traditional headdresses worn by many of the riders to the trio of teen males with long hair, rock t-shirts and sunglasses.
Although Spray and Velez resist imposing a narrative structure on Manakamana, there are a number of narrative elements that have been purposefully arranged in the editing process. Drama develops when a lone woman suddenly smiles to herself. (What is she thinking of?) Humor bubbles over when another woman and her mother indulge in ice cream bars that begin to melt all over their hands. Surprise arises when we come out of the darkness at one point to find we’re in an open-air car populated with goats. There’s even a musical interlude when two men begin tuning their sarangis and launch into a lovely song for the duration of their ride.
Manakamana also has a meta element at play. These are people who have 10 minutes to do little but sit (no one pulls out a mobile phone). And we as viewers have little to do but sit and watch them. It may strike some as claustrophobically dull, but for me each ride – and the film as a whole – felt like a refuge. There’s something centering about slowing down your viewing rhythm, so that it feels less like gasping and more like measured breathing. Consider it cinematic yoga.