Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, consists of only eleven shots, each one running some ten or eleven minutes, filmed in 16mm. Each shot is taken from inside a cable car as it moves toward or away from the top of the Nepalese holy mountain Manakamana, carrying one or more passengers at a time. The film documents six rides up, followed by five rides down. Passengers include an elderly Nepalese couple bearing flowers and a rooster; two women who, laughing, struggle to eat a pair of melting ice cream bars; a trio of teenage rock musicians carrying a kitten and posing for selfies; and a herd of confused-seeming goats. Some of the trips unfold quietly, the only sound being the creak and rumble of the cable wire overhead. Others are noisier, as passengers chat and make observations about the journey, some of which (“my ears are popping”; “look, that’s the sal forest”) repeat throughout the film, creating subtle rhythms and repetitions.
Apparently shot without a screenplay, featuring a “cast” of credited non-professionals, the film exists somewhere between documentary and narrative cinema. While it engages questions of tradition and modernity, spirituality and technology, it does not tell a story or make an argument so much as it quietly and patiently watches. Produced by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel of last year’s Leviathan, Manakamana is similarly evocative and beguiling, and offers similar challenges to viewers who are used to more directed, aim-oriented films. Both are the products of Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, a collective of experimental filmmakers and artists committed to exploring “the bodily praxis and affective fabric of human and animal existence.” Like Leviathan, Manakamana is an attempt to understand its subject experientially and affectively. Wary of making any definitive claims that might sap the film of its delicate nuances, it opts to immerse its audience in its world, letting us fumble toward our own tentative conclusions.