Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

Footage shot in a cable car carrying pilgrims to a Nepalese temple makes for profoundly moving cinema, writes Duncan Wu

December 4, 2014

Source: Cinema Guild/Everett/Rex

Ordinary people: extraordinary experience


Directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez
On limited release in the UK from 12 December 2014

Nothing has been rehearsed. There is no agenda. Manakamana comes as close as any film I have seen to portraying real life, as honest as a mirror

Black screen. Machine-like sounds, people conversing, silhouettes against an unfamiliar background, the sensation of movement – and the journey begins. There’s something archetypal about the start of Manakamana, as if it contained images and sounds that were the embodiment in poetic form of all human narrative. Perhaps that has something to do with the nature of its subject.

The temple of Manakamana (meaning “heart wish”), in Nepal, is considered sacred to the wish-fulfilling Hindu goddess Bhagwati. It stands on a distant ridge 1,300m above sea level, the destination for many thousands of pilgrims every year. Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, the film’s directors, bolted a 16mm camera to the interior of one of the cable cars that takes pilgrims up to and down from the temple, and recorded their 10-minute journey from start to finish. The film strings together 10 of these journeys in their entirety, including those of an old man with his grandson, two musicians, two visitors from North America, and three Nepalese heavy-metal musicians.

This rigorous, austere film is unlikely to be everyone’s cup of cocoa, but, for those receptive to it, it will rank as one of the most profoundly memorable you will ever see. It has no cast or direction (in the usual sense), no script and no formal narrative. And because of how it has been conceived, its contents are determined by the chance comments and observations of those who it records. For those reasons the uninformed might presume it to be about randomness or nothing at all, but they could hardly be more wrong.

Manakamana shows ordinary people, some of them impoverished Nepalese peasants, on an extraordinary day – one of ritual, on which they pay tribute to a higher power. By “ordinary”, I think in particular of the middle-aged couple whose faces declare their arduous lives; they have a chicken for sacrifice. As the cable car makes its way up the mountain, we see the occasional bird and hear the wind, the voices of onlookers on the slopes beneath, and the whirr of the camera. “The hills are gigantic,” says the wife. “God, what a beautiful sight.” Although their clothes don’t properly fit them, these are the best they have.

Perhaps the most eloquent detail in the couple’s 10-minute journey is the chicken. Whatever it has cost them, it seems to be at the limit of what they can afford, and represents belief. At one point the woman remembers when, before the cable car was built, it took three days to reach the temple from their village. And that is what belief will make people do. Belief lies at the heart of this film. In one of the journeys, the cable car is full of goats, travelling to the temple for sacrifice. They may be animals, but their destiny is to become part of an irrational conviction that regulates people’s lives.

Manakamana shows us 10 journeys in all. Because there is no script, and some of the passengers say nothing, you might expect it to be boring. But no, it is compulsively watchable. The people and animals are drawn to the top of a mountain by forces larger than themselves – and what they’re doing alters their perceptions. Several mention the popping of their ears and the beauty of the world as it appears from the cable car. And as they travel in its enforced intimacy, we are able to study them at moments of intense anticipation, or in the aftermath of ritual slaughter.

Film review: Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

It is the downward journeys that are most revealing. When the middle-aged couple return from the temple bearing the chicken’s carcass, they appear sad and diminished. “Things only started changing recently,” the wife reflects. It is not just that they are changed by the religious ceremony in which they have taken part, but that their awareness of change in the larger world is sharpened as a result. The visit to Manakamana is a tradition dating from a pre-industrial society that has survived into another age – that of mass tourism and popular music. Perhaps those who embark on this pilgrimage are not wholly of the modern world, for their aspirations and needs transcend time and place. Even the rock musicians, despite their long hair and contemporary dress, are strangely disconcerted by the experience: one keeps mentioning the popping of his ears, another photographs the landscape obsessively, while the third affects contempt for the peasants he sees below. Their elevation above the jungle and rapid passage up the mountain alters their perspective: “I’m sick of playing at these pubs,” says one; “I’m getting butterflies in my stomach,” says another.

I challenge any viewer of this film to remain untouched by it, and have pondered for a long time how and why it works. Manakamana provides us with an inescapably fundamentalist experience. It is not just that it is concerned with spiritual matters but that it is made in an uncompromising way. The focal length of the camera is constant and its position in the cable car fixed, so there are no zooms, pans or tilts. We never see what the passengers are looking at – in fact we never see the surrounding landscape as it appears to them. Nor are we shown the temple and what happens there.

In other words, the film is concerned exclusively with the pilgrims, their thoughts and reactions, as they pass up and down the mountain. There is no CGI, no intervening committee of script doctors, make-up artists or lighting cameramen. There are just passengers – solitary, in pairs or threes – visiting the temple of a goddess who demands sacrifice. The manner in which they are filmed places us in close proximity to them, a feeling intensified by their remarkable lack of self-consciousness. Everything is subordinated to the film’s subject: ourselves.

Is that why Manakamana is so refreshing? Probably. Nothing here has been rehearsed. There is no agenda. The situation of these people is the only constant. As a result, unlike much contemporary film, Manakamana speaks eloquently of what it is to be human. Its cast may be devotees of a religion few of us understand, but on this unusual day in their lives they appear before us as exemplary of everything we share with them. Perhaps that explains why its makers include the journey made by two young American tourists. Like others who travel back down the mountain, they are subdued – as we are, as we reflect on these people and their lives.

All of which may have something to do with the fact that Manakamana was produced by Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Ethnographic it certainly is, but it is not narrowly academic. Manakamana comes as close as any film I have seen to portraying real life, as honest as a mirror. The cynic might say that that is something you could see on the live feed from any of the CCTV cameras in Oxford Circus. The difference is that, because of the manner in which Manakamana is made, it manages to speak of what is universal among us, and that makes it something special.

It is released in the UK on 12 December, although what that means I hesitate to guess: on its first weekend Manakamana opened at just one US cinema and I doubt whether it will take up much space at British multiplexes. If by some chance you find yourself at a cinema enlightened enough to show it, take the plunge. There can be few films more appropriate for the time of year.

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