A completely beguiling look at how we behave during those mundane moments that are in-between the seemingly more important ones, Manakamana couldn’t be simpler in its execution, and yet this is a documentary that radiates incredible compassion and insight. Produced by the directors of last year’s brilliantly assaultive documentary, Leviathan, Manakamana couldn’t be more different, utilizing a similarly uncompromising approach but one that’s far more contemplative and lovely. If Leviathan showed us the primal terror of everyday life, this new film is a warm hug, a salute to our shared humanity.
Manakamana is directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, and overseen by the Sensory Ethnography Laboratory, a Harvard lab established by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, who co-directed both Leviathan and Sweetgrass. Like Manakamana, these earlier documentaries eschew conventions such as talking-head interviews and descriptive title cards, immersing us into their worlds without a roadmap. (In Leviathan, for instance, it’s the universe of a New England commercial fishing boat, the camera frenetically roaming from room to room and even plunging into the choppy ocean waters.) We don’t learn about the subjects’ personal lives, but these films’ intuitive skill is such that those details don’t matter: The chance to get a relatively unfiltered experience is more than enough compensation.
Shot in Nepal, Manakamana presents us with a group of disparate people all taking a cable car either to or from a Hindu temple high in the mountains. Each of the film’s 11 shots consists of one cable car ride, with a fixed camera inside one end of the car observing the passengers on the other side. One time, we see a trio of longhaired wannabe rockers. Then, it might be an elderly couple, or a group of female friends, or a woman all by herself. There’s no outside music and no cuts: We just watch them sitting in the cable car as they enjoy the view, talk to each other or stare blankly into space.
If that sounds monstrously boring, the wonder of Spray and Velez’s film is that it first puts us into a meditative state and then gives us an opportunity to really monitor these individuals. And what comes through is that while Manakamana’s subjects are conscious that they’re being filmed—the directors had to man the static camera, although they didn’t interact with the passengers—they have a naturalness indicative of people who don’t seem concerned about playing to the audience. For one of those rare times in cinema, we’re watching people simply be.
And because we know nothing about these passengers, they prove to be endlessly fascinating, compelling us to extrapolate relationships and scenarios based on snippets of conversation or little bits of body language. When two women in their early 20s—one a white American, one an unspecified ethnicity from outside the U.S.—spend most of the ride in silence looking in opposite directions, we wonder: Have they been fighting? Are they even friends? Spray and Velez shot approximately 35 different rides, and so the 11 they decided to include in the film have been chosen for reasons of pacing and variety. But the filmmakers aren’t interested in trying to create some sort of patronizing rainbow collation of different ages, genders and ethnicities. Instead, Manakamana’s subjects seem to represent an array of diverse moods and situations, the filmmakers offering a generous sampling of human interactions. (For instance, you’ll probably never think of the difficulties of finishing a frozen treat on a hot day the same way again after watching this movie.)
With a soft touch, Spray and Velez also appear to be making a comment about the strange dichotomies of contemporary life. In a rugged, gorgeous corner of Nepal, there exists this impressively modern cable car, which can take people to visit a sacred Hindu temple. But Manakamana never drives its gentle ironies—the mix of new and old, and the intersection of technology and religious faith—into becoming obvious talking points. Instead, the filmmakers let their subjects’ random bits of conversation speak volumes. (The repetition of observations about the beauty of the natural surroundings, as well as the recurrence of older passengers noting how different this journey was before the arrival of the cable car, has a poetic, rhythmic quality to it.) Even the static shots start to take on a hypnotic power: We’re inside the car with these people, for a moment sharing their lives, but because they leave and we never do, Manakamana can almost feel like an odd way station, a benign purgatory where nothing changes except for the travelers we encounter.
But mostly, we just sit back and observe and reflect. I’ve never been much of a people-watcher—it’s always seemed a bit invasive—but Manakamana demonstrates what can be quite life-affirming about the hobby. There’s so much going on around us all the time, but we’re too busy getting to our next destination to ponder that simple truth. Spray and Velez force us to slow down and consider that truth. We humans get so wrapped up in this idea that our activities and events define us. Manakamana suggests quite persuasively that only at rest do we truly and fully reveal our essential natures.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Directors: Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez
Release Date: Screening at the 2014 True/False Film Festival