Manakamana | Review

Directors: Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez.
Country: Nepal, USA
Running time: 118 minutes
Release date: 12th December

Review by Hannah McCarthy

The subjects of Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s documentary retrace the steps of an ancient pilgrimage, albeit by cable car, to the temple of Manakamana, the sacred place of the Hindu goddess Bhagwati. Hanging high above the mountains, the film mimics this spiritual journey with its reflective nature and contemplative silences, focusing on a cast of people who make the same journey but enjoy different experiences.

The film is somewhat of an artistic experiment. With a running time of 118 minutes, it consists of only eleven shots, each shot lasting the length of a 400 inch roll of 16mm film. The camera is never acknowledged by the passengers, and it does not move to take in the landscape over which the cable car passes. The viewer experiences the landscape only by glimpsing it in the background, and through the passengers’ descriptions as they comment on the giant hills and the beautiful corn. The passengers are the main focus of each shot, and through the camera’s unflinching gaze we are forced to examine every facial expression and every movement, coming to know them in a uniquely intimate way despite only meeting them for ten minutes at a time. Velez has described this as “watching people think against an unfolding landscape”, which allows a meditative exploration of the subtle movements and body language through which people express themselves.

This static camera increases the significance of the diegetic sound. Velez points to the soundtrack as providing a link between these “small metallic boxes” travelling through the air and “representations of space travel” in science-fiction films, as the cars judder and glide along the cables. Each journey begins in darkness as the passengers board the car in the terminus, and the audience waits in anticipation to see who the silhouette will become. The first two journeys takes place in almost complete silence, as an elderly gentleman travels quietly with his grandson, and a solitary woman travels with a plant as an offering for the goddess. Amidst this silence the clang of the cable car is deafening as it passes through the supporting towers, and it is only when the woman coughs that you register the complete lack of dialogue up until that point. Spray has said that this “reticence” encourages audiences to project their own interpretations onto the film.

Not all the passengers maintain this quietude however – we meet a group of young rockers, bandmates, who are travelling up the mountain with a tiny kitten and bemoaning the location of their latest gig. Later on we witness three women, all of whom share the same husband, discussing the scenery and recounting the myths about the goddess. The funniest and most interesting pair is two ladies valiantly attempting to eat ice creams while battling the heat.

Manakamana is a unique experience, one that forces you to engage with people you meet only briefly, but to whom you feel an intimate connection through examining them and travelling on their journey with them. While the landscape and the people remain somewhat frustratingly unexplored, it leaves you wanting to find out more.

Written by Hannah McCarthy

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