Manakamana review: sense and sensory sensibility over Nepal

Film Title: Manakamana

Director: Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez

Starring: N/A

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 118 min

Fri, Dec 12, 2014, 09:00

   

The Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University doesn’t sound like the most obvious source of ground-breaking cinema to rattle senses and confound expectations. Nonetheless, last year’s Leviathan – a near-wordless study of a trawler and its catch – was among the most bracing documentaries of the decade.

This latest project form Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel does feature some audible conversation, but, beholden to an austere brief, Manakamana makes Leviathan seem like a whirl of incident. It is also quite brilliant.

The film-makers set a static 16mm camera within a cable car transporting pilgrims to a Hindu temple high in the mountains of Nepal. Manakamana comprises 11 complete journeys cemented together to give the illusion of one continuous loop.

Each leg is the same: travellers rise or descend through mists that inevitably suggest heavenly realms. But each has its own unique character.

A lady and her friend rustle mysterious objects beneath the frame, before producing choc ices that they fail to stop from dripping on their clothing. Three elderly women talk about how the area has changed in recent decades.

A group of amiable heavy metal fans bring their kitten for a ride. “We should sacrifice him at the temple,” one of their number says. He seems to be joking, but a party of unaccompanied goats – revealed in the film’s most jarring break from faux-continuousness – seem unlikely to end their lives peacefully.

Manakamana works as a tone poem, a Warholian revel in the mundane and an ethnographic study of an isolated corner. But it is also very useful as a demonstration of how cinematic presentation alters our interpretation of ordinary things.

Why does this European lady look so peculiar? Is she intimidated by the person playing with a camera? If there is no tension between them, then why am I being shown this image?

Stark and unforgiving, Manakamana is a journey worth taking.