Manakamana: A very uneven ride

C+ Documentary

  • Directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

This documentary shot in Nepal shows us small groups of people in brief, eight-minute segments against beautiful but repetitive scenery. At times it’s touching, funny, boring, lovely, and strange. But ultimately, it becomes repetitive.

Shortly before seeing Manakamana at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival, Jason Weiner of Jason Watches Movies pointed something out something that made me not want to see this film: It came out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab–the same organization that produced the dreadful Leviathan. I saw it anyway; same collective, but different directors.

And I was right: Manakamana is much better Leviathan. Admittedly, that doesn’t take much. The two documentaries share some stylistic choices. In both, the camera simply observes the world in front of it, without commentary or any seeming opinion. And both spend a lot of time studying faces. But the faces in Manakamana are mostly human . Leviathan concentrates on dead fish.

Manakamana is named for a Hindu temple and pilgrimage site in the Nepalese mountains. The film isn’t about the temple itself; it’s about getting there and returning home.

Once, that was a journey on foot that took many days. But now, thanks to a cable system with hanging gondolas, it’s an eight-minute ride. The gondola has two seats facing each other; each wide one enough to hold several people.

Filmmakers Spray and  Velez simply set their camera on one seat–sometimes the one facing forward, and sometimes the one facing back–and film the person or people sitting across from them. The camera doesn’t move (aside from moving with the gondola) and each ride is shown complete without cuts. This is basically a film without editing.

The hills and valleys are beautiful at first, with that wonderful immersive feeling you get from a camera moving forward across an open space. But the scenery soon loses its luster; after all, we see the same terrain again and again and again.

But Manakamana isn’t really about the scenery, or about Hinduism. It’s about the people sitting across from the camera. At their best, they’re delightful to watch. We get an eight-minute concert by aging traditional musicians. A couple squabble. In the funniest segment, two women returning from the temple try to eat their ice cream bars before they melt and make a mess. (I didn’t know that religious pilgrimage sites sold frozen desserts.)

Animals seem to play an important part, although why is never explained. A group of young, hip-looking musicians take a kitten for the ride. One couple has a chicken. In the weirdest sequence, the gondola seems to have been replaced by a cage overcrowded by very frightened goats.

Nothing is ever explained. The passengers never interact with the filmmakers, and only glance at the camera quickly before looking away. It’s clear that the filmmakers asked them to not look at or acknowledge the camera crew sitting across from them.

Despite the many bright spots, Manakamana lags a good deal. Long before the film was over, I found myself hoping–every time an eight-minute journey came to its end–that it would be the last one.