Manakamana: Toronto Review

Manakamana Still - H 2013
Courtesy of TIFF
An observational documentary in which the camera captures the passengers of a cable-car cabin in Nepal.

The latest experiment from Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab is directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, and produced by "Leviathan's" Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel.

TORONTO – After sheep in Sweetgrass and sea creatures in Leviathan, the human race finally gets its feature-length close-up in Manakamana, a formally rigorous documentary that’s part of the output of Harvard’s prolific Sensory Ethnography Laboratory.

Produced by the lab’s director, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, and Verena Paravel, who co-directed Leviathan with Castaing-Taylor, and directed by newcomers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, Manakamana patiently observes the passengers of a cable car that connects a hilltop temple in Nepal dedicated to the titular deity with the base of the mountains. A roll of 16mm film is just enough to film a single trip, which takes about nine minutes up or down, and everything’s edited together to suggest one long take in which a variety of groups of twos and threes -- and once, five goats -- share a cabin, admire the landscape, chat, or in one of the film’s funniest scenes, try to eat ice cream before the tropical heat causes it to melt.

Without any voice-over or editorializing other than camera placement, which is identical in all shots, this is the kind of uncompromising art house documentary that festivals will wholeheartedly embrace -- indeed, it won several accolades at the recent Locarno Film Festival -- but that will remain a tough sell theatrically, though distributors who managed to squeeze some money out of Leviathan might like to see whether lightning can strike twice.

The first trip up to the temple -- some 3,425 feet higher up and almost two miles away -- will immediately get rid of any audience members who don’t have the patience to simply observe people, as an old man and a young boy simply sit next to each other in the closed cabin for the entire ride without saying a single word. They face Velez’s camera, with the moving landscape visible behind them through the window, almost as if it were back-projected. The effect is like having installed a camera in a photo booth-type environment where the subjects can’t get away.

Closer scrutiny, of course, reveals more details about the couple. The boy seems to be scared, nervously looking outside and shifting in his seat, while the older man tries to pretend he’s not worried, though you can see him cringe each time they pass a supporting tower and the sound of steel on steel can be heard when the cabin rolls past the tower’s highest point.

Whenever the gondola arrives at one of the two covered stations, lighting conditions are so terrible that it’s hard to see anything, which Spray, who also edited the film, uses to completely fade to black and switch to a new roll of film, giving the impression the camera never leaves a single cabin while passengers keep changing. This works so beautifully that it’s kind of jarring when Spray breaks the spell when she edits in an open-air gondola that transports goats (probably to be sacrificed at the temple) before switching back to the closed cabins. However, it also reveals something of the humor that can come from simple observation, as the animals, after all the human passengers, look like hairy and horned unaccompanied minors.

Patterns emerge by virtue of repetition. Most passengers appear to be locals who visit the temple, often carrying gifts that can’t always immediately be fully identified, since the camera only shows the bust and head of the passengers. The clothes of the locals are often similar, with the men wearing dhaki topi hats and the women’s red garments often complemented by green necklaces. Some appear to be very religious, while others are simply respectful of tradition or curious tourists.

One of the best sequences shows three young, long-haired men in black T-shirts who turn out to be musicians. Their banter is hilarious and when they take pictures with their digital cameras, they act exactly like their peers from the world over and unwittingly reveal that Nepal also has a modern side (something the cable car structure itself also silently suggests).

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Wavelengths)

Production company: The Sensory Ethnography Laboratory and Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University

Writer-Directors: Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez

Producers: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel

Director of photography: Pacho Velez

Editor: Stephanie Spray

No rating, 117 minutes.