Manakamana provides irresistible wish fulfillment for those who want a guilt-free opportunity to stare at fellow passengers on a transport. Let alone that each takes the 10-minute cable car ride almost a mile up the Himalayas, overlooking a thickly forested river valley, on the way to the temple of the wish-fulfilling Hindu goddess Bhagwati, more than 60 miles from Kathmandu, Nepal.
While pilgrimages have been undertaken there since the 17th century, the titular temple has only been this accessible since 1998. As exotic the locale, stunning the view, foreign the dress or accents, this intense and fascinating look at the pilgrims beautifully exposes their humanity.
Co-director Pacho Velez operated a mounted, stationary camera within the five-by-five-foot cab while Stephanie Spray recorded the minimal conversations and the ambient sounds of machinery and the birds flying all around. The unusual setting and circumstance heighten the voyeuristic fun to figure out just how much you can (surprisingly) learn about the relationships among each combination of the people the filmmakers pre-selected for the 10 full rides (couples, families of different combinations and ages, friends, locals and tourists). Though none is identified, which is a bit frustrating, the directors knew most from villages where they had been making films.
Going up during the first half, the riders seem full of memories or trepidation, carrying offerings or curiosity, affecting even the most stoic. Though the same travelers and supplicants are not always seen going down in the journey’s second half, there is a feeling of relief, exhaustion, and satisfaction. Some clutch souvenirs. (The eleventh group, goats, only travel up—hinting at the temple’s animal sacrifices, but they react to the birds just like the humans.)
It’s marvelous how the minimal conversation and body language, where almost everyone is looking not at each other but at the outside, can be so revealing about individuals and their relationships. My two favorites: An elderly woman is so nervous fulfilling her life’s dream to make this trip that she confesses guilt at not giving her daughter the opportunity instead, while her brusque adult son is impatient with her self-sacrifice. Two musicians (presumably father and son) each see something different out of the windows—the elder takes note on how remote these villages used to be when this experience was an arduous trek, the younger man is wide-eyed at the bird’s-eye view. But as first one, then the other, starts tuning a stringed instrument, they play in sync on a melody for their performance at the temple.
The directors’ use of an entire magazine of 400 feet of 16 mm film per shot is similar to Andy Warhol’s technique in his four-minute Screen Tests portraits in the 1960s, which Spray cites among their influences, and relates to why Manakamana was originally shown at last year’s New York Film Festival’s “Views From the Avant-Garde” section.
For its unusual combination of aesthetics and ethnography, the documentary is now part of the focus on films created under the aegis of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab showing at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2014 Biennial and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Art of the Real” series, including other works to catch directed by producers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, co-directors of Leviathan (2012): his Sweetgrass (2009) and her Foreign Parts (2010).