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Interview: Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez

By Scott MacDonald on April 11, 2014

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Art of the Real selection Manakamana screens Saturday, April 12th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) continues to impress. The intersection of serious filmmaking with serious anthropological study, masterminded by SEL director Lucien Castaing-Taylor, has made the lab a nexus for documentary filmmaking, even within an era when documentary has developed a following unimaginable even 20 years ago. The past couple of years have seen the emergence of Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan and, more recently, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana. The two films couldn’t be more different, but they suggest the range of work coming out of the SEL. Leviathan is free-form and immersive, like a feature-length, big-screen, high-definition, very loud Stan Brakhage film; Manakamana is formal and meditative, like a James Benning feature, but full of subtle human interaction. Both films allow us to experience elements of reality that the filmmakers find fascinating and revealing, but avoid providing information that can be verbalized, allowing us to learn from the experience and draw our own conclusions.

Manakamana was filmed on the cable car built to transport devotees of the Hindu goddess Bhagwati to the mountaintop Manakamana temple in Nepal, where they hope their offerings will allow the goddess to grant their wishes. The film’s 11 cable-car journeys up to the temple and down from it (each lasting approximately as long as a 400-foot roll of 16mm film—Manakamana was shot in Super 16 but is distributed as DCP) present a panorama of worshippers and tourists interested in the temple—portraits of individuals, couples, groups of friends during a moment of transport and transformation. Some of the individuals making the trip will be familiar to those who know Spray’s earlier, solo films (she has spent many years living and filming in Nepal), but the deft recording of their subjects allows Spray and Velez to reveal the familiar within the strange and the strange within the familiar—but most of all to give us an experience that we viewers share with these other pilgrims.

It is striking that so many of the SEL feature films have been collaborations between a man and a woman—Leviathan, Manakamana, J. P. Sniadecki and Paravel’s Foreign Parts (2010), Sniadecki and Libbie Cohn’s People’s Park (2012), and the SEL’s first big hit, Ilisa Barbash and Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass (2009)—though, of course, documentary has long been energized by cross-gender collaboration, in ways that other regions of cinema have not (D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou, Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan). In the following interview with Scott MacDonald, developed over emails with Spray and Velez last summer and fall, the filmmakers discuss Manakamana and the collaboration that brought it to life.

Manakamana

How did the Manakamana project evolve? What led you to each other as collaborators?

Stephanie Spray: The initial idea for Manakamana evolved from filming I was doing in Nepal, in a village just outside of Pokhara, where over the years I’d made Monsoon-Reflections [08], As Long As There’s Breath [09], and Untitled [10]. I was looking for new film contexts for my subjects, taking them to various locales where I’d have some control over the shoot. I’d heard about the Manakamana cable car and the Manakamana temple, although I’d never been there myself. I invited Bindu Gayek (the woman in the second shot of Manakamana) and her son Kamal to ride with me on the cable car in September 2010, thinking that the confines of the small space would allow for a productive, albeit forced, intimacy between the film subjects and the camera—I’d never been on a cable car and wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Later, viewing the footage, I realized that the duration of the trip would allow for intimate exchanges to unfold.

I’d been thinking about this project for months and had written treatments for it when I returned to Cambridge in January 2011. Toward the end of my stay, I met with Pacho at a pub to catch up.

Pacho Velez: Stephanie and I had known each other for several years. We’d met in Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s first Sensory Ethnography class, back in 2006: I was Lucien’s teaching assistant, and Stephanie was a graduate student. Stephanie continued in the Harvard program, and I went to study at CalArts with James Benning, Thom Andersen, Rebecca Baron, then returned to Harvard with my MFA.

SS: There had already been examples of productive collaboration in the SEL, namely Foreign Parts [10], which was doing exceptionally well at that point. I’d never collaborated on a film before, but knew that Pacho had successfully collaborated with others and felt confident he’d be a good partner. He’d already been thinking about a film about public transportation. In March 2011, Pacho got in touch and said he was interested in the project, and it was his brilliant idea to shoot on 16mm, knowing that a 400-foot roll of film at 24 frames per second would be roughly equivalent in cinematic time to the duration of the cable-car trip.

PV: We were drawn in by the conceptual logic that the string of cable cars pulled along on a wire “rhymes” with the frames of 16mm film pulled along through a motion picture camera.

SS: We became conscious of the parallels between the two technologies, their related evolutions, and the constellation of associations they might produce. There was also the parallel of the frame of the film image and the framing of the landscape by the cable-car windows—both motion pictures—with viewing spectators coming along and marveling at the ride. Filming in a cable car suggests an idea that seems fundamental to the Sensory Ethnography Lab: that culture is always in a process of transformation, on the move.

PV: Manakamana presents the audience with a collection of time-and-space-limited encounters. Throughout the film, groups of characters are on the move, and the repetitiveness of the structure, combined with the lengths of the shots, lets each group’s quirks reveal themselves. During these long tracking shots, the characters’ attention is also shifting around: absorbing the landscape, reflecting on inner thoughts, and contemplating the goddess Manakamana. Since the film is so much about these flows, “movement” begins to take on an ideological and maybe a metaphoric aspect as well. These people are on the move, and so is their way of life.

But while the camera is constantly moving, it also never moves at all. Both movement and stasis are important to the film. As we built the film, we thought in terms of binary propositions: portraiture/landscape, nature/culture, man/animal, East/West, speech/ambient noise. Maybe the film makes an experiential claim that culture is a moving target, but it’s a moving target locked inside an enclosed box.

SS: My relationship to Nepal, where I’ve done most of my work, and the people there preceded my training in filmmaking and in anthropology. I began filmmaking in 2006 as an art practice that might allow me to explore the world in ways that were not merely discursive. In 2007, I began training in anthropology; I was attracted to its traditional emphasis on long-term, deep engagements with people and place and, especially, learning the local languages. For me, humanistic aims trump any interest in illustrating concepts such as culture or culture-in-flux. I hope Manakamana conveys how artificial distinctions (call them cultural, religious, political, or whatever) between ourselves and presumed Others fall short of what James Agee calls “the cruel radiance of what is” or what Buber refers to as “I and Thou.”

Concepts such as “culture” function as frameworks for how we perceive the behaviors and values of others. Manakamana gives you fleeting glimpses of the world being filmed, without satisfying the desire to fully know the human subjects or the mountainous landscape they traverse. This is conveyed though units that appear temporally whole, shots that offer up simulacra of both real time and reel time. Manakamana also provides commentary on the cinematic frame: the window behind the passengers is reminiscent of the ways in which the image’s frame both reveals and misconstrues our vision. The cinematic frame is therefore a metaphor for any conceptual frame that we bring to viewing Others.

Manakamana

Am I correct, Stephanie, that your seeing James Benning’s 13 Lakes [2004] and, Pacho, your studying with Benning at CalArts had some influence on the structuring of the film?

SS: Yes, his films made a strong impression. 13 Lakes was the first I saw, and is a favorite. As a kind of homage to 13 Lakes, I’ve been working on a sound project about the lakes of the Pokhara Valley, but with a twist: I’m primarily interested in what lies under the surface—literally, as well as metaphorically and acoustically (I use hydrophones). I plan to compose the pieces with references to local stories about drownings and malevolent water spirits. 7 Lakes will be the dark twisted sister of 13 Lakes.

PV: At that point, I was very interested in structural films, works like 13 Lakes—but even more, Jørgen Leth’s 66 Scenes from America [1982] and Alan Clarke’s Elephant [1989]. I found a freshness in structures that supported narrative elements without fully giving themselves over to the conventions of storytelling. I had recently directed some theater experiments (for lack of a better term) at CalArts, and I was particularly intrigued by the “doubleness” of acting—actors’ studied non-attention to their audience. This interest carried over into Manakamana—I’m watching the subjects’ awareness of their world, and how it shifts to acknowledge the passing landscape, other passengers, and private thoughts, before occasionally, obliquely returning to the camera, which is so clearly staring at them yet is never explicitly addressed.

When was the film shot? How much time did you spend filming?

PV: The film was shot over two summers, 2011 and 2012. The bulk of the work was done that first trip. The second trip was necessary to collect some things we’d been unable to finagle during the first trip (like the goat shot). The first summer we worked for five weeks and the second summer, three weeks.

Manakamana

What was the division of labor during the shoot? When the folks we meet in the film looked your way, what did they see?

SS: Pacho selected the stock, loaded and unloaded the magazines, and shot the film. We borrowed the Aaton camera Robert Gardner used to shoot Forest of Bliss [1986] from the Film Study Center. We’re both admirers of Gardner’s films and handled his camera with reverence and glee, conscious of how our film participated in the history of ethnographic filmmaking and commented on Forest of Bliss in particular.

We hired carpenters in Nepal to build a custom-made wooden platform to anchor the Hi-Hat tripod for the camera. We measured the exact location of this tripod platform in the cable car before shooting, so that the framing would be consistent throughout. I recorded sound using a shotgun stereo microphone encased in a zeppelin on a boom pole and recorded the sound on a two-channel sound recorder, the Sound Devices 702.

PV: There were a number of practical reasons why 16mm film was right for us. It has a great exposure latitude, and we wanted to capture both our characters and the bright backgrounds behind them. Also, 16mm has very deep focus, and we wanted to be sure that our characters were crisp as well as the distant backgrounds. The look we wanted runs counter to the standard look today, when everything is shot on DSLRs with big chips and little depth of field. We shot in 16mm and ended up with a 2k DCP. We had dreams of going to 35mm but just couldn’t afford it.

SS: But we also decided against 35mm because we were convinced by Patrick Lindenmaier, who worked on our image and color in postproduction, that it would in no way add to our film aesthetically.

We were aware of the nostalgia indexed by the grain of 16mm film and the 16mm film camera—especially the camera we were using. We thought about how within the state-of-the-art digital technology of the “developed” world, our use of 16mm might reflect the “developing” country of Nepal, where, en route to a temple, the majority of cable-car riders go to worship a goddess requiring blood sacrifice.

PV: Our production situation was unusual. Because of the intermittent power supply, we didn’t have a good way to charge our camera batteries during the day. We were very much at the mercy of our conditions and had to move forward quite slowly and deliberately. It was also very hot; the cable cars became mobile greenhouses in the midday sun. We usually shot about four rides in a day, and then would go to the nearby town for two-three days of recovery, recharging, reloading, etc. In total, we probably shot for about nine days on the cable car. We filmed 36 trips.

The nicest, easiest part of the shoot was dealing with the people. I think we said the same things that many observational documentarians say to their subjects: “Please ignore the camera; just do what you would normally do.” I don’t think we interfered any more than Drew Associates or the Maysles Brothers in their early work. Of course, fly-on-the-wall observation is impossible to achieve. In fact, the ways in which we most clearly failed to be flies on the wall add an interesting texture to the film. Stephanie knew some of the characters from her earlier fieldwork, but for many it was their first time in front of a camera, and also on the cable car.

SS: While we did shoot a number of individuals neither of us knew at all, the majority of the subjects we ended up including in Manakamana had known me upwards of a decade. They’d been subjected to my camera and field recordings for years. In fact, I had “kinship” relations with most of these subjects: I’d been adopted by one family, one of the matriarchs in the third shot (Khim Kumari Gayek, the woman in red who tells the rambling story about the ascetic and Kalika) adopted me as her daughter in 2004 after I’d been visiting her family for several years, because all of her daughters had died. Her co-wife, Chet Kumari Gayek, seated in the middle, later came to adopt me as well, perhaps a form of competitive co-adoption—they share a husband, why not an American “daughter.” Bindu Gayek (in the second shot) is Chet’s daughter-in-law and came to call me her “younger sister.” So they needed little prepping before sitting before a camera, whereas those subjects we did not know as well tended to be either awkward and stiff or more obviously performative.

We didn’t tell our film subjects much about our project, other than to say we wished to film them on their journey to and from the Manakamana temple in the cable car. We gave them free rein to talk about whatever they pleased, but asked that they not stare at the camera. This creates a productive tension, for subjects do indeed glance at the camera or at us from time to time. I suppose Manakamana is the inverse of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, in which subjects were instructed to gaze directly at the camera. In either case, the subject is aware of the camera, as is the audience.

Manakamana

How did you select the 11 trips you included in the final version? What factors led to your choice of a 6/5 organization?

PV: We spent a long time figuring out the film’s shape, starting from a much more rigid, structural idea of how the film should look. Early cuts featured 18 rides: nine up, nine down, and for each ride the camera would switch positions in the cable car—facing forward, backward, forward, backward…. It was a very precise and clean edit, without loose ends or mysteries. In many ways, it felt like a film that could have been produced by James Benning. And that was a problem for us. Somehow, the balance was tilted too much towards conceptual precision and away from small human revelations. We had to find a balance between structuralism and ethnography, these two huge traditions that we were trying to synthesize.

We ended up with a more playful structure, one that borrowed ideas from structuralism, but also from classical Hollywood cinema, like the shift at 25 minutes from “Act 1” to “Act 2.” In His Girl Friday, that’s the moment when Walter Burns (Cary Grant) convinces Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) to stay in town and write the newspaper article; in Psycho, it’s the moment when Marion Crane meets Norman Bates; in Manakamana, it’s the moment when characters begin to talk. And it totally shifts the audience’s expectation of the next 90 minutes.

We also added a two-minute space of black in the middle of the film, between the rides up and the rides down. During this time, the audience can hear the temple bells and the bustle of pilgrims, and come as close as the film allows to the experience of seeing the temple. It’s a moment for the film’s characters to have an experience with the goddess. Stephanie and I could not figure out how to visually represent that religious experience in a way that conveyed its deeper meanings, so we settled on black and sound.

The glib explanation for six shots up but only five down is that the goats that you see going up are sacrificed, and don’t make the return trip. But we gave a lot of thought to the film’s end. For a while, it finished with the two musicians (now shot 10) riding into the station. But then we realized that we had a character arc with the older couple who ascend with a live chicken, then descend at the very end. When I watch their descent, I find myself drawn to the woman’s face. I see her fear at the shaking car, her interest in the beautiful landscape, but also what I would call her spiritual satisfaction. She looks fulfilled to me. And it’s something I don’t think I’ve ever really felt, living my comfortable, rational, agnostic existence; I envy her for it. That’s why it should be the last shot.

What’s the history of the Manakamana cable car?

PV: It was built about 15 years ago by a Nepali businessman, after receiving a concession from the royal family. A lot of the technical know-how comes from India, though the cable cars themselves are Austrian. It’s been in continuous operation since it opened, except for repairs after the Maoist insurgency tried to blow it up.

Ernst Karel worked with you on sound. Ernst had done Swiss Mountain Transport Systems [2011], sound pieces of a variety of forms of mountain transport including cable cars. At what point did he become involved in Manakamana?

PV: Ernst consulted with us from the beginning about strategies for documenting sound in the cars. And he received reports about our progress while we were in the field. But we used different techniques to record than he did. He was interested in the ambient sounds in the cable cars. We did want to record those, but we also knew it was important to have clean, intelligible recordings of the dialogue. So we were using a very different style of microphone and a different placement strategy. During postproduction, Ernst mixed and sweetened our sound, and he built the two-minute sound piece (featuring the temple bells) at the film’s midpoint.

SS: Ernst has been crucial to nearly all SEL films; he informs our way of thinking about sound in cinema and sound more generally. In postproduction, he worked with us to make the 5.1 sound mix, for all of our recordings were stereo. He spatialized the sound, helped us emphasize particular frequencies over others for a very subtle sci-fi effect in some of the earlier shots, and worked with us to compose the sound piece following the goats, which precedes our first trip down the mountain. That said, with the exception of some additional wind rustling in the goat shot, we did not foley any of our sound, as many presume; we stuck with the original stereo recordings. As a phonographer who frequently edits and works with field or location recordings, Ernst encouraged us to be confident to do so.

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