Active Ingredients: Structural design; Playfulness and humanity
Side Effects: Lack of thematic depth, resonance across scenes
The latest experimental documentary from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Manakamana is a playful and contemplative glimpse into culture and human behavior. There’s an obvious and effective structural simplicity to the film’s design—several, 10-minute long takes documenting cable car rides to and from a temple in Nepal—and it’s a pattern that begins to expand in significance from its repetition. Ultimately, the work of first-time directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez doesn’t reach the conscious-shifting brilliance of Sweetgrass and Leviathan, but its pleasures are smaller and more intimate.
Interestingly, the experience of watching Manakamana connects its viewers to its subjects. We simply observe the passengers of the cable car at rest, inhabiting their own skin. They stare out the window or look down at their feet; they make idle chit chat or they sit in silence. Likewise, the stillness of the film’s frame and the extended duration of each shot allow the viewer’s eyes to wander, to consider the mountainside scenery around the car, study the faces of its travelers or zone out to its rhythmic whirring and clanking.
Obviously, Manakamana is not for everyone. It would be forgivable to grow bored or to begin looking for narratives that the film isn’t interested in providing. Yet inspite of, or rather because of, the tedium and quiet of these short journeys, it becomes transfixing to observe every nervous tic or sleepy glance: both those of the subjects and your own as a viewer. Somehow, so much about a person’s character can be gleaned from what they do when they do nothing.
As the trips accumulate and new passengers enter and exit, certain patterns and themes arise, though I imagine they may be unique to each viewer. I began to notice how each subject internalized their own unique experience: an experience with the ride itself, a religious experience at the temple, or the experience that comes from old age and wisdom. Rides to the temple, for example, are fraught with expectation and promise, while return trips are defined by the satisfaction of the visit. People write in journals, snap photos or make conversation to commemorate the event. The age of many of the passengers plays into this as well, as elderly visitors reflect on past experiences and speak to the gulf of time they see when they look out the windows of the cable car. They don’t just see villages, but the forest that used to exist in their place; they don’t just see the cable car, but the dirt trail pilgrims had to climb before it was built.
If you can readjust your own internal rhythms as a film watcher to the meditative quiet of Manakamana’s cable car, the film allows you to share in these small experiences with its subjects.