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December 13, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


Manakamana, a popular Hindu temple situated high above a vast jungle in Nepal, once took Pilgrims roughly three hours to reach by foot, a demanding journey made worse by it being an uphill trek. This was remedied in the mid-nineties by the arrival of a state-of-the-art cable that has since modernised an ancient journey and allowed visitors from across the globe to access the hallowed place of the wish-fulfilling Hindu Goddess Bhagwati.

Commissioned by the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University and directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, Manakamana (2013) is a stunning observational documentary that explores the way this new form of transportation has played a major role in the slow renovation of such an archaic country. Spray and Velez do this through the at once simplistic but meditative technique of setting up a single camera in one of the cable cars and merely recording in real time the different, carefully curated passengers journeying to and from the temple, with each ten-minute trip lasting the duration of a roll of 16mm film and focusing on a new set of commuters, be they human or, in one case, goats.

With a runtime that approaches two hours, this is an ostensibly galling undertaking that’s made incredibly potent and appealing by the simple humanity the filmmakers wring out from such a simple mode of representation. Opening on a black screen with only eerie whirring noises on the soundtrack, which could be mistaken for that of a rollercoaster ride, the film begins with no establishing shots or clarification, just an immediate shot of a young boy and an old man in the car, observing their surroundings.

This first trip is a perfect representation for the rest of the film and the way it offers no explanations, instead allowing the audience to ruminate and ponder about who these people are, where they come from and why they’re visiting the temple. We glimpse mere snippets of their lives and are invited to draw our own conclusions from the expressions on their faces, their thoughts on the scenery and their immediate surroundings, and what they do or, mostly, do not say. This is an incredibly humanistic and powerful way of revelling in simplicity, where the turn of a head or the attempt to eat a melting ice cream speaks wonders about us as human beings. It’s repetition as catharsis, with the emphasis on the internal space of the car offering a fascinating juxtaposition with the verdant external expanse.


Amidst this idiosyncratic, meditative group of static point of view shots is something of a comment on cinema itself and the role it plays in projecting the world through a unique prism. Accompanied by the continuous whirring noises of the lift – which, if you close your eyes, closely resembles those of a film projector – is the window the passengers sit in front of, which acts as something of a back projection pit against these people gazing at the views around them. Numerous times it’s pointed out that the cable car doesn’t seem to be attached to anything, which, along with the undefined time-frame, emphasises this vessel’s passage through time and space. At one point in the film two American tourists discuss the notion of keeping a diary, which throws up questions of the need to document mundanity that the film answers beautifully.

Manakamana is out in UK cinemas on December 12th

Edward Frost