** (2 stars)
d – Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez
ph – Pacho Velez
ed – Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez
p – Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel
MANAKAMANA begins in absolute darkness. We hear a loud clank, confusing and unnerving. It is soon visually clarified as the noise of a cable car set into action.
MANAKAMANA is this: the length of each shot of a cable-car trip up or down the mountain to the titular Nepalese temple, a voyage more or less about the duration of a 16mm reel. The variation on the shot itself is that the car is either going up or going down, and that the passenger is sitting either in the direction of travel or the opposite, which decides where the camera is placed.
So, in other words, the cinematic factors are arranged for the viewer. Before each trip begins, we orientate our mind accordingly: Who will it be this time? Where will they be sitting? Which part of the landscape will be visible from which part of the car?
The first two trips – one up, one down – are dialogue free. The first is of an old man and a young boy. They sit in serene silence that is interspersed only with the jolting noise of the cable car surpassing each post. They make no indication to the camera or of even knowing they are being filmed.
The second lap is of a woman sitting mutely with a bouquet, bordering the contrary direction from the first passengers. The third trip is the first to contain a conversation between two people. The succeeding passengers mostly come in groups of two or three and through the conversations they offhandedly have we discover more about what we are actually watching.
I have been informed that the film was shot over the course of 100 days or so. Each shot is stitched together seamlessly within the darkness of the platforms with impeccable sound editing so that the film feels like one continuous journey. We know this can’t be true however due to differing weather climates, as slight as they are.
One of the more disorienting aspects comes from trying to deduce each silhouette before it is revealed. At one point, three people end their trip and give way to what looks like the same number of people in the dark, but the new passengers turn out to be four goats. Abbas Kiarostami and Apichatpong Weerasethakul would approve.
Several cinematic impediments constantly fascinate the mind throughout. One of the most peculiar is the shot of two women coming down who endeavour to eat the ice cream they’ve just bought before it melts (Nepal is hot, you know). For some reason, this particular shot has the imposition of a patch of reflection on the lower left, so we see what we are approaching at the same time. Does this mean the camera has been placed differently?
At the conclusion of the final cycle, the film in the camera unexpectedly runs out, which leaves us to deduce what is going on based solely on aural intelligence. At that point in the film, the audience has been rigorously trained in the film’s serene rhythms that we can accomplish this without much difficulty.
I entered the film’s rhythm rather quickly but obviously this will not be the same for everyone. The film runs for 118 minutes. Another, and admitted on the part of directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, influence are the films of director James Benning, who himself always used 16mm film.
MANAKAMANA is the third film from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab that I have seen. The previous two, Sweetgrass (2009) and Leviathan (2013), were nature-focused. All three have given me a mixture of emotional imperviousness and intellectual scintillation. Of course, those two sensations in conjunction mean cinephiles have welcomed them with open arms.
MANAKAMANA is a smorgasbord for cineastes. I will admit to you, dear reader, that many of you are probably going to find this film beyond trying. That is unfortunate, because, at the same, I feel that this really is a film for everyone. It’s communal effect when seeing it in the theatre is vivid and tangible. But I can also understand if 2 hours of ethnography does not constitute your idea of a good time at the movies.