Manakamana review

Manakamana opens with a single, locked off shot of an old man and a young boy, silently seated in a cable car. As the beautifully luscious Nepalese jungles falls away in the background, framed by the window behind them and playing like a film within the film, we are left in the dark as to why they are traveling on this journey.

The destination of this particular cable car is the Manakamana Temple, a site for Hindu pilgrimage; it is believed that the Goddess Manakamana will grant the wishes of those that visit her.

The camera never cuts away and the only movement comes from the cable car’s instability. As the old man and young boy wordlessly reach the end of their journey, the car enters the hut at the end of the route and the image goes black. Then, over this black screen we hear the murmur of machinery and the chatter of people, before the light returns and the cable car emerges once more with new occupants.

And so Manakamana continues, for a total running time of two hours and around ten journeys – I counted the loops to begin with, but quickly became too engrossed and lost count.

Surprisingly, this is a very gripping film. While some may baulk at the idea of a documentary with less than a dozen cuts, almost no dialogue for the first twenty minutes and then across long stretches throughout, this is a film that absolutely demands your attention, and then regularly rewards it.

Despite easy preconceptions about a film where the camera doesn’t move and there are very few edits, this film was constructed carefully, with a lot of thought and craft. Spray and Velez filmed on the Manakamana cable car for around a year, and selected particular journeys from their experience to create a very particular narrative.

Around the midpoint, there’s a particularly startling moment. As the cable car emerges from the darkness, we are greeted not with the sight of a couple or a group of friends, but a cable car full of goats. I let out a hearty laugh at first, surprised by the choice of directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, and the fact that I was now about to spend almost ten minutes watching a car full of goats slowly travelling in a cable car.

And then I remembered that animal sacrifices take place in the Manakama temple. An intense sadness took over as this ride was revealed to be a journey into the abyss for a pack of animals that had no idea about the fate that awaited them. The sequence was particularly powerful because it followed a ride with a group of metal loving, long-haired teenagers, sharing banal comments about their trip and grabbing selfies.

This is the third film from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab to receive a cinematic release, following Sweetgrass in 2009 and Leviathan in 2012, and continues a trend of fascinating subjects filmed in a remarkably imaginative way: the complete list of their projects has been published on their website. The unusual formal decisions in these films help shape what we are viewing in a fresh fashion, and challenge us to engage in new ways.

Manakamana is yet another extraordinary feature from SEL, and I look forward to their next unique project.

Manakamana is in UK cinemas now.