Opened in 1998, the Manakamana cable-car system in Chitwan, Nepal, rises to a top station at 1,302 meters, near the site of the temple of the Hindu goddess Bhagwati. The ride commands some of the most spectacular aerial views in the world. At least, I assume it does. We only see a certain portion of the landscape in Manakamana, the documentary by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, and what we do glimpse is framed by the back window of a cable car. But in any case, we’re not so much looking at the landscape in Manakamana as at the people in the car, and their responses, or lack of responses, to what’s around and beneath them.
Manakamana is a 118-minute film comprising 11 extended takes, each lasting roughly 10 minutes, each covering one traveler or set of travelers as they ride up or down the cable—six rides up, five down, separated by an interlude in which, over a black screen, we hear some of the sounds of Manakamana (temple bells, the noise of a crowd, the distant bleating of goats, the shriek of the cables). Over the course of each ride, the static camera (sometimes facing in the direction of travel, sometimes against it) simply records a portrait of the travelers.
The film was made under the auspices of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, a body best known for Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan, about a commercial fishing boat, and Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash’s Sweetgrass, which records the journey of a flock of sheep in Montana. You can find the background to the SEL’s overall project in Irina Leimbacher’s article in the current FILM COMMENT (March/April 2014), but she quotes the SEL website’s formula—“innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography”—and Castaing-Taylor’s comment that the SEL is concerned with the effort “not to analyze, but to actively produce aesthetic experience, and of kinds that reflect and draw on but do not necessarily clarify or leave one with the illusion of ‘understanding’ everyday experience.” The SEL’s most celebrated production to date, Leviathan probably did give viewers a sense of understanding aspects of fishery that they had never previously contemplated: this deeply immersive film made for a disorienting, even violent watching experience, and left you understanding how it might feel to endure an industrial fishing trip if you were a crew member, a fish, or even the ship itself.
Manakamana may similarly give you the feeling of being there, but it’s a much more contemplative film. It’s less about seeing the landscape at Chitwan, more about sharing space and time with the travelers on their way up or down (I say “travelers” rather than “people” because, in one episode, the cable car is replaced by a cage-like container, and the passengers are four goats tethered together). Each section starts with the car emerging from darkness at its station, and ends with it returning to darkness at its destination; we never see the travelers get on or off, and the film is edited to give the impression of a continuous loop (like the loop on which the cable system itself works), the background sound playing continuously without any discernable breaks.
Even so, each section offers a discrete portrait of a subject or group of subjects. First a man and a boy get on board—we assume grandfather and grandson—but neither seems terribly impressed by the landscape outside, or responds to it very strongly. They look a little rueful, and we wonder whether it’s because they’re bored by an over-familiar journey. Or perhaps they’re nervous about sitting in front of the camera—although we aren’t told whether any of these people are aware of the camera’s presence, or whether the filmmakers are in the cab with them. There appears at first to be not much to see in the course of a 10-minute journey—but of course there is, little moments taking on the status of major event. There’s a wonderful fortuitous moment when the man and the boy, who seem to have been ignoring the landscape, suddenly both look out of the windows on their respective sides, in perfect synch.
Next comes a woman in a red sari carrying a floral decoration in basket. At one point, she looks back behind her, then gazes up ahead, looks apprehensive (but is she?), smiles briefly. We have no information about these people, and can only ascribe moods to them. Then come a middle-aged couple, head down, seemingly crestfallen; the man has a chicken in his lap that occasionally lifts its head into frame. When the woman talks, something like 23 minutes into the film, it comes as a shock: “Makes your ears pop, doesn’t it?” she grins. Later, she comments “The hills are gigantic. It’s beautiful”—one of the film’s handful of direct statements about the landscape—and remembers that she once walked all the way up (it took three days).
The passengers keep coming: three old ladies, who muse on their times and age (“These days are better than the old days, but no one respects us”); three young heavy-metal guys with a kitten, who take lots of photos and talk about how it would be great to make a music video in the car (but then remember that another band has already done it). The goats look understandably anxious, one of them bleating loudly whenever they pass a pylon, which releases a load metallic thud; the pylons intermittently give this quiet film a touch of Leviathan’s dynamism.
The viewer is free to read each episode as being in a different “genre.” There’s psychological realism, as we try to fathom the thoughts of the unknown people before us; melodrama, whenever we choose to imagine that certain people have a backstory that’s causing them to take this journey; out-and-comedy, in the two dignified matrons who try hard not to crack up as they lick their melting ice cream bars (“We’re like children learning how to eat!”); and musical, in the episode of two musicians who, after a brief chat, decide it’s time to tune up, then play a mesmerizing fiddle duet.
There’s also a mystery episode, as two young women—one white, one Asian—sit side by side, but ignore each other, and we wonder whether they’re complete strangers, uneasy to be in each other’s company, or traveling together after a quarrel. As it happens, they soon start chatting casually in English, in North American accents; one of them admits, “I’m not really a foothills person.” And the film finally gives us a sort of closure, by bringing back characters for the first time: the nervous couple who went up in the third episode, now coming back down.
As Leimbacher points out in her article, one of the fascinating appeals of Manakamana lies in how little we know about the people and about the circumstances of the film’s making, which leads us to make all kinds of hypotheses. In fact, the film’s website reveals, the subjects were chosen from people close to Spray, who she therefore knew would be at ease in front of the camera. Both filmmakers were in the car with the passengers, Spray recording the sound while Velez operated the Aaton camera. They chose to shoot in 16mm because it gave the film a “structural integrity,” as the length of a spool was roughly equal to the length of a single ride, while the film itself rolled in parallel with the actual cable. And they choose film over the seamless aesthetic of video, because that would place them on the side of the travelers rather than the engineers of the cable car, as DV would have done.
What I was most aware of when watching Manakamana, however, was the simple fact of not knowing who the travelers were, or why they were taking the ride—but, knowing that there was a temple at the top (because I’d read a very brief synopsis), I realized that people had different reasons for going up. For some, you sense, taking the ride is a matter of huge importance, a pilgrimage in the proper sense (one woman offhandedly mutters a prayer: “Manakamana, we take refuge in you”). For others, it’s simple tourism, or perhaps a nostalgic act, or just a pleasant way to spend time. Just occasionally, the ride seems to take on symbolic resonance for the travelers themselves: “It’s hard going up but fast coming down,” says one of the three old women, a little knowingly reading the trip as a metaphor for life and aging.
The camera’s position allows us just enough to piece together a picture of the landscape, although it was only towards the very end that I realized there was a river running past the base station. What we’re really getting is a series of fascinating portraits—and I mean portraits in the painterly sense, pictures of people not knowingly giving away anything of themselves, but revealing a lot if we use our imaginations. There’s a long tradition of moving-image rides, from those silent-era bus and train journeys with cameras mounted on the front of vehicles, to those fairground VR boxes that fly you bumpily through space. But this journey film is only incidentally similar, because Manakamana is more to do with the journey happening outside the box, and about our being placed inside the box with the people we’re accompanying. Which makes the film closer, in way, to Warhol’s screen tests. Or indeed, like Stagecoach. Manakamana is a travel film that’s not about the ride, but the riders. Ourselves included, of course.