The screen is black. A couple of logos appear and disappear. Then a single word: Manakamana. Mechanical sounds fill the darkness, and then light begins to enter the frame. A young boy and an older man—his grandfather maybe—are seated directly facing the camera in a cable car going up a mountain. The man says nothing. The young boy looks like he might want to say something, but he never does. He looks almost upset, or possibly confused? It’s really impossible to know, but the mind can’t help creating assumptions, especially since we’re stuck with these people in a single static shot for roughly ten minutes until the cable car reaches the top of the mountain. As the cable car enters the loading building everything goes dark again, only to brighten up once more, revealing a solitary woman with a flower, also taking the journey up the mountain.
Manakamana is an experimental documentary directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, and produced at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, which is also responsible for the films Sweetgrass and Leviathan. The film plays out essentially exactly as described, with 11 single-take, static shots inside cable cars, first going up the mountain, and later descending it. The result is mesmerizing, and it serves to reorient the audience’s understanding of what documentary can do.
It’s not until the third cable car trip that somebody speaks, probably twenty-five minutes into the film. In the fourth trip we sit with three elderly women who speak quite a bit. Through them we finally begin to understand what we’re watching. The film is set in Nepal, and the long cable car system was built to ease the journey of Hindu pilgrims going to pay tribute at the Temple of the goddess Manakamana. With each successive trip up or down the mountain the details fill in further. Animal sacrifices take place at the temple. Tourists go there as well. Before the cable car, the journey up the mountain could only be done on foot and it took three days.
In one of the more boldly memorable sequences, a cage car is sent up the mountain filled with four or five goats to be sacrificed. The camera sits there, unmoving, as the landscape rolls by and the goats come to terms with their frightening new environment. For much of that trip one goat’s ass, in all its ugly detail, faces the camera. It’s unpleasant, but you’re stuck there and it’s hard to look away.
The first couple of trips up the mountain serve in some ways to familiarize the audience with the journey, teaching us how to watch the film. As the people on board the cars become more talkative, we begin to make connections and find meaning in what unfolds on screen. Several people comment on how things have changed and developed in the area over the last few years. A woman and her mother talk about growing up without any milk while trying to eat a couple of quickly melting ice cream bars. It’s what happens when a poor, traditional culture meets Westernization and modern technological progress. One of the three old women remarks that life today is better than it was, but that now they don’t get respect as elders. That scene is followed by one in which three young members of a rock band take selfies and marvel at the quaintness of their surroundings.
True to its roots, the film employs ethnographic technique to place the audience on an even plane with its subjects, learning little that is concrete about them but beginning to form a closer understanding of their thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It’s not a study of a culture at large, but a narrow examination of various people within a specific cultural context. Boring could be one word for it, but the film creates a meditative space for the audience to begin exploring all these ideas and more.
That’s a very striking characteristic, and an important challenge to mainstream contemporary documentary, which largely works on narrative or didactic terms. Manakamana, like Leviathan before it, is never didactic. Through the choices of scenes and ordering, the film suggests trains of thought to explore, but it leaves that exploration entirely up to the audience. It’s a refreshing mode for cinema to take, and a wonderful respite from the narrative concerns we most often encounter. By standing back and letting the images and the subjects speak for themselves, without judgment or comment, Spray and Velez create something as endlessly engrossing as it is simple. It’s a great achievement, and if you love film, you owe it to yourself to give it — or Leviathan, which is currently on Netflix — a try.
Manakamana is currently playing in Toronto, and is touring around the U.S. You can seen when it is coming to your city here. If you’ve already missed it, no doubt it’ll show up on Netflix in the near future, so keep an eye out.