MANAKAMANA is the newest film produced under the banner of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, responsible for 2012’s LEVIATHAN (soon to be streaming on Netflix) and 2009’s SWEETGRASS, films that stride between nonfiction and fiction, sound and sightscape, narrative and non-narrative. While those films err more on the sensory than the ethnographic, MANAKAMANA is an unusual piece of filmmaking with an open sense of humanism, both anthropological and cinematic. The film ends up being something contemplative, challenging, and unsettling in the best sense.
Already generating critical praise and finishing up its area premier run at The Brattle, the film is a meditative examination of a single cable car route above the Nepalese jungle. Co-created and directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, the film features eleven long, stationary takes of travelers making the journey to Manakamana Temple, a site that houses the goddess Bhagwati, who grants wishes to pilgrims who make the journey.
The film features a variety of subjects, all aware of their on screen presence. Some make the journey in a sacred sense, and for others, the site is touristic. Itinerant musicians, old couples, young metalheads, and a group of goats all make the same journey. What was once a three-day trek now takes approximately ten minutes in the cable car.
The film feels investigative and inquisitive, but the best work it does is not simply the blurring or complication of certain boundaries—ancient and modern, viewer and subject, stillness and motion, silence and sound—but the continual reevaluation and confrontation of these things in turn. This manifests itself in the looping of the journeys up and down the mountain, and the thrum and run of twinned mechanisms: cable car and film reel, and the circulation and commingling of the audience’s and subjects’ gazes.
MANAKAMANA (2013) DIR. STEPHANIE SPRAY AND PACHO VELEZ
5/22 – 5:00PM & 7:30PM
40 Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
I spoke by phone with one of the film’s creators, Stephanie Spray, on my lunch break. We discussed MANAKAMANA’s evasion of easy genre classification, her background in Nepal, and the film’s attention to the ordinary qualities of everyday life.
MANAKAMANA grew naturally out of Spray’s work and residence in Nepal. She has lived and worked in there since 1999, conducting research on music and religion and later, making films.
Spray and Velez didn’t set out originally to make a film about the Manakamana cable car, but discovered in their own journeys on the route that it would make for a challenging spatial limitation. The sensory experience of being stationary and yet airborne was appealing to her, “There’s something about being propelled through space like that gives you a different perspective.”
The subjects of the film, mostly previously known to Spray from her work, appear as partners in the journey. The camera’s fixedness in the cable car enjambs the jungle landscape churning below.
“It’s parallel to the position of the audience. That’s what we’re trying to suggest, not to encounter the subjects purely as an ‘other,’ but to place the viewer in a similar position. You’re thrown into the movie. We don’t give you a historical or cultural context for what you see.”
This suddenness is varyingly intimate, funny, tense, contemplative. It creates what spray calls “a productive discomfort.”
“A lot of what happens is serendipitous,” she said. “But at the same time it’s extremely staged and controlled.” Indeed the film deals in this tension between spontaneity and confinement on the part of both the subjects and the audience.
For Spray, conventional documentary film refers to a “certain contract that exists between the film and the audience, the filmmaker and the film subject.” She and Velez wanted to explore and in some sense, set aside that contract.
This kind of filmmaking and ethnography has precedents in everything from Andy Warhol’s SCREEN TESTS (as well as his pieces BLOW JOB and EMPIRE) to the work of James Benning, Sergey Dvortsevoy, Robert Gardner, and Sharon Lockhart, all of whom Spray cited as influential in the conception and production of MANAKAMANA.
As in the films of Pedro Costa, Spray attempts to present subjects who “may not be doing anything in particular.” Nonetheless, something about how they do nothing or very little “tells you something about their presence and how they see the world.”
She is drawn to liminal, apparently inactive or unhurried spaces and situations. In the off seasons in Nepal Spray had many opportunities to observe people in their unstructured time, “I can became interested in the details of how people pass time. How they loiter, how they wander.”
This loitering and mingling becomes its own kind of intimacy, one achieved not through any attempt at narrative comprehension of a person’s life, but through the singularity of a particular encounter. It’s something I’m tempted to say is irreplicable in fiction or narrative film.
It’s also an approach related to ethics, “We’re not trying to provide you with a film that describes their lives necessarily, but give you a little glimpse into who they are as people, or what their world is like.”
For some, this kind of cinema is unsettling or even frustrating, but it’s important to see this approach as part of a larger artistic dialogue going on about duration, lingering, repetition, and attention. Spray and Velez have created a strongly—if not obviously—ethical film. It’s a kind of ethics that requires patience, as it ultimately considers the vitality of the non-linear, the awkward or interstitial moments that, in the end, make up much of human life.
STEPHANIE SPRAY’S WEBSITE
Nicely written Mr Thaxton. You have a way with words.