Tuesday, June 2, 2015
So much occurs within the deceptively static frame of Manakamana. Never moving beyond the four walls of a cable car riding to and from the eponymous temple in Nepal, the film consists of just 11 trips, each captured in a single uninterrupted take of about 10 minutes. Some passengers sit in an awkward silence only broken by the periodic metal-on-metal screech of the car rattling past another tower. Others idly remark upon the beautiful landscape below, play music, or bleat, in the case of a carload full of goats being transported toward their sacrificial end at the temple. Yes, there are life-and-death stakes in this humble film about people trying to sit quietly with a rooster on their lap.
The film’s restrictive concept liberates the viewer’s attention, and the world within and without the car reveals an abundance of little wonders. A bird flies past the window so quickly it vanishes like an apparition, calling to mind the disappearing bird swooping through the inner rooms of the Zone in Stalker. Blurry figures wade through the rippling waves of foliage covering the hillside or shout half-heard taunts at the swiftly moving car. In the wordless ride that opens the film, a young boy and old man—the youth agitated and uncomfortable, the elder stiff and stoic—look from side to side until the rhythms of their turning heads seem somehow choreographed. Everything is important when nothing happens.
Every detail, however innocuous, feels like a potential key to the mysterious vignettes unfolding before us, and the film invites the audience to approach each ride like a fresh puzzle to be solved. Consider one of the earlier sequences featuring a solitary woman carrying a basket of flowers. Viewers may feel a twinge of anxiety when the car jolts into motion—are we expected to just stare at this woman in silence for 10 minutes? Give it a few moments. You may notice that she is holding her basket at chest level, in an awkward position that no one could be expected to hold for the entire ride. So why does she do it here? For the camera, of course. Midway through the ride, she shifts to the centre of the seat to better frame herself for the viewer, and a brief, embarrassed smile betrays her ulterior motive before she returns to her nonchalant pose.
This episode, the second in the film, hints at the game being played by directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, who are both actually riding in the cable car with passengers. The couple carrying their rooster to sacrifice at the temple sit stiffly with downcast eyes, but it is not necessarily fear over the car’s rickety ascent that pins them to their seats. Rather, they have been instructed to not look at the camera, and they are so painfully aware of the camera’s presence that they cannot act naturally. By comparison, more experienced performers like the three metalheads inexplicably travelling with a mewling kitten—not intended for sacrifice, don’t worry—take selfies and chatter away for the benefit of the camera. What’s one more lens in their lives? Even the hum of the cable wire begins to sound like a film projector after a while. Or is that just the noise of the unseen 16 millimetre camera?
The verisimilitude of the film has been crafted for its own corruption, just as all of the trips have been carefully edited into a single continuous round trip that nonsensically goes up six times in a row, and then down five times. The directors, both veterans of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, even allow the film to run out on the final ride as the sound carries on, which only highlights the artifice binding the other sequences together. Whereas other films from the Lab aim for sensory immersion—the GoPro pandemonium of Leviathan, for example—this curious hybrid of documentary and structuralist filmmaking prefers sensory deception. Blurring of the line between performance and reality, the film reveals more about the viewer’s biases toward documentary form than anything of the customs and culture surrounding the unseen temple. If Spray and Velez are conducting an ethnographic study, then the true subjects are to be found in darkened theatres around the world, not the green hills of Nepal.