Calming and imagination-sparking, Manakamana is a tender, ephemeral character study of its passengers; a window into the lush landscape of a country in transition; and a stunning blend of life’s grand and monotonous movements.
Filmed in 16mm and comprised of 11 rides (each a single take which corresponds to the length of a roll of film), Manakamana is shot entirely inside the narrow bubble of a cable car, high above a jungle in Nepal, as it transports villagers and tourists to an ancient mountaintop temple.
Leviathan, also from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, was a study in movement. Manakamana is the exact opposite: it’s beyond static and practically dormant, a powerful examination of silence observance and cinematic minimalism. Directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez now insist that spectatorship – patience and duration – is the foundation of creative edification. There is no music, no script, no narration, no explication, and barely any dialogue: only a succession of dreamy trips, one given over to goats.
Yet for all its manipulations and self-imposed restrictions, Manakamana is expansive, intricate, and surprisingly playful. (In fact, among the many remarkable qualities boasted by Manakamana, perhaps the most surprising is its humor.) By focusing on such a narrowly angled slice of life, Spray and Velez cede any totalizing claim on the truth, settling for a perfect incompleteness. It peers into lives at close range, and it’s amazing, given the modesty of its scope and means, how much Manakamana is able to achieve.
Manakamana succeeds by creating the ongoing anticipation of something, anything to happen next. It’s a wholly unique sensation driven by its inventive design. Invited to sit in the facing seat, we have long minutes to watch, listen, and assess. It forces viewers to look at human faces for quarter-hour stretches, no matter whether those faces are talking excitedly or quietly looking around. Patterns emerge by virtue of repetition. It’s about neither the journey nor the destination, but the individuals planting themselves in front of the lens.
Its tranquil pace will prove jarring for those folks inclined towards action blockbusters; otherwise, it’s pretty close to an act of genuine hypnosis. Observational with a vengeance, more an art piece than a conventional motion picture, Manakamana is simple in conception, but the reactions it evokes are complex and multifaceted. Almost beyond the power of words to describe, Manakamana is a haunting experience that requires stratospheric resilience and offers spiritual, philosophical, and aesthetic rewards in return.
If Leviathan showed us the primal terror of everyday life, Manakamana is a warm hug, a toast to our shared humanity. You could hardly ask for a more beautiful presentation of souls in transit.