The late mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev (he died during an avalanche while climbing in Nepal) once said, ‘Mountains are the cathedral where I practice my religion’. In Manakamana, these two elements blend into one soporific whole.
Stunning scenery and the beauty within the everyday characterize this slow-moving, yet hypnotic documentary. A microcosm of the world outside, this non-fiction feature, filmed in 16mm and comprised of 11 rides, follows passengers travelling across mountains above a jungle in Nepal on a 10-minute, one-way journey to reach the temple of the title, home to a sacred Hindu goddess.
The latest offering from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Manakamana never strays from the confines of the cable car and its beautiful, if ultimately repetitive view. That directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez are able to keep the viewer hooked on both the environs and the travellers, hoping for a glimpse of a higher god at the other side, makes their difficult task seem quite effortless.
One of the obvious tensions here is the pull between old and modern, with wizened villagers in traditional dress sharing their intimate space with trendy young men and the odd random tourist. From one end to the next, forward and back, we watch each journey from start to finish, as one set of passengers dismounts and another prepares to pass over these mystical mountains.
Spray has actually lived in Nepal since the 90s, and spent a long time casting locals who could effectively play themselves in the film, so despite Manakanamana looking like the result of a daytrip on the cable car
with a camera, it was more complex than it seems.
For the first half hour there is actually no dialogue, leaving you to drink in the view and make what you will of the passengers’ expressions. There’s humour too, in discussions which do take place – like that of the
freewheeling chat of three old women who share a husband, or with two women as they try and cope with their swiftly decomposing ice-cream sandwiches.
Conversation is also prompted by the view outside; the cornfields or a new outcrop of houses. Another time, passengers are treated to an impromptu gig as a couple of sarangi players offer up a number.
A trundling trip rather than a rollercoaster ride, Manakamana will be an acquired taste for some, but for those who can take the (slow, steady) pace, it has its quiet rewards to reap. You’ll most definitely be thinking about a trip to Nepal by the end of it.