Tuesday, December 2, 2014


MANAKAMANA           B                
Nepal  USA  (118 mi)  2013  d:  Pacho Velez and Stephanie Spray      Official site

Along with SWEETGRASS (2009), LEVIATHAN (2012), and The Iron Ministry (2104), this is another film to come out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab :: Harvard University (SEL), a unique collaboration between the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Visual & Environmental Studies programs established in 2006, which is distinct from other graduate visual anthropology programs in the United States in that it promotes experimentation with culturally inflected, nonfiction film.  The Lab is comprised of graduate students mostly making films that are not for exhibition, but are seen only among themselves, but a surprising number of acclaimed documentaries have come out of the Lab.  The subjects can be traced back to the works of Robert J. Flaherty, considered the forefather of ethnographic film, the maker of the first feature length documentary film, NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922), which was an attempt to realistically portray Inuit people in northern Canada, though it required quite a bit of staging before the camera.  The same could be said for these films, which lend themselves to stark realism, shot in real time, using raw footage, unedited and unadorned, using no explanatory talking heads, where the films aren’t meant to explain what we’re seeing, but to simply take the viewer into a mysterious world where they’ve likely never been and allow them to fully experience what it’s like.  To this end, like Flaherty, they succeed brilliantly, as they are a time capsule documentation of an existing reality in some faraway small corner of the globe.  This notion of capturing reality has haunted filmmakers from the beginning, where according to French film critic, film theorist, and longtime editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, André Bazin, each era looks for its own realism, its own technique and aesthetic which can best capture it, where there may be numerous realisms, but there is also past realities, present realities and future realities — all of which cinema creates or mediates and explores continuously, while another Cahiers editor, Jean-Louis Comolli, offers his own views:  

The basic deception of direct cinema is really its claim to transcribe truly the truth of life, to begin the position of witness in relation to that truth so that the film simply records objects and events mechanically.  In reality the very fact of filming is of course already a productive intervention which modifies and transforms the material recorded.  From the moment the camera intervenes a form of manipulation begins.

While these documentary films offer the appearance of truth, the ultimate question is always finding the best way to achieve it.  Once more, Bazin claims in his book What is Cinema? - Volume 2 - Page 26 - Google Books Result that realism in art can only be achieved in one way — through artifice — that every form of aesthetic must necessarily choose between what is worth preserving and what should be discarded, and what should not even be considered.  MANAKAMANA is set in Chitwan, Nepal, where the filmmakers set up a Super 16mm camera in a fixed position inside a gondola lift cable car that takes passengers up to and from the Manakamana Temple, with the filmmakers themselves riding in the same cars recording the various passages in real time, relying upon a strict formal precision of a series of unbroken shots, in this case 11 shots, each about 10-minutes in length, each trip containing a different group of passengers.  The trips alternate between ascents and descents, with blackout periods where the car goes through a turnaround at each of the terminal points, allowing for an undetected editing process, creating the illusion that the whole film was done in a single take.  Curiously, in a discussion with the filmmakers afterwards, we learn that there were 35 shots in all, that the original cut was 3 and a half to 4 hours, eventually edited down to 11 shots.  People in the film were not chosen at random, as one might presume, but were selected ahead of time and rehearsed by the directors and their team so they’d feel comfortable in front of a large and cumbersome 16 mm camera staring at them for the duration.  So exactly like Flaherty, there was a certain amount of staging incorporated into the realist aesthetic, though the extreme minimalistic approach makes it appear completely naturalistic.  As the film does not provide any narration, there is no history provided of how the cable system was installed, as previously the only way to reach the 17th century Manakamana temple, the sacred place of the Hindu Goddess Bhagwati (who has the ability to grant pilgrim’s wishes), was by walking uphill for over three hours.  The modernistic cable car system of 31 passenger cars and 3 cargo cars was imported from Austria in 1998 and incorporates its own generators and hydraulic emergency drive in the case of a power failure.

What sustains our interest is the unique characteristics of each passenger, most of whom are from the Nepal region, offering a cross-section of people who would come to visit the temple, some of whom sit in complete silence, their attention drifting off into the mountainside below, while others may hold continuous conversations throughout, many dressed in hats and colorful attire, some bringing a variety of objects with them, including musical instruments or animals.  The film opens in complete darkness, where only the mechanical sounds, mixed with the noise of people stirring about, can be heard, as movement can be detected by signs of light until there’s an abrupt lift into the sky, offering a rare vantage point of the lush green foliage below, where there’s a sign of dirt roads and smaller trails carved out in the mountainsides, clusters of houses clinging to hillsides, and terraced farming on the foothills of the Himalayas.  The sky is everpresent, where one can see the lines the cable cars travel upon strung out into the distant horizon, often seeing many cars coming in the opposite direction, where it’s a quiet ride, like floating on air, until they hit one of the stabilizing towers, which makes a jarring noise.  The ride uphill is slower, requires more power, and takes a bit longer, while the descent is quicker, though during the filming one often can’t tell if they’re moving up or down, where we’re lost in an optical illusion.  Of note, we never actually see the temple, the object of the passengers’ destination, but are instead stuck in a series of continually linked sequences that automatically recycles before the next journey begins. 

Anyone who has ridden in a similar contraption realizes that initially there is an element of fear, where it takes awhile to feel safe while hoisted up into the air like this, as there is no way out until you reach the final destination, where the initial passengers of an elderly man and a young child sit in silence, where no one speaks at all in the opening twenty minutes.  But people carry offerings, like flowers in a basket, or a live rooster, while three Asian metal rockers bring a weeks-old kitten with them that keeps wailing throughout while they humorously take a series of selfies, talking excitedly about making a music video here before complaining that there’s no a/c.  In another instant we’re in the presence of several bleating goats in a cart, where initially it appears they could anxiously leap out of the car in a panic until we see they’re all tied together.  Midway through is a shot in total darkness, where all you hear are the screeching mechanical noises associated with turning the car around, where the stereo sound design has front and back speakers that add to the sensuousness of the moment.  Two women attempting to eat ice cream bars turns into a comedy of errors as one has it smudged all over her face while the other simply can’t stop the constant dripping all over herself, while afterwards two seasoned musicians heading for the temple tune and play their stringed sarangis.  One of them recalls hiking up the mountain in earlier times.  While one never knows what to expect and there is an element of anticipation waiting to see who or what comes next, there’s some question whether this is enough, as this remains a smaller film about subtle distinctions where some viewers may feel trapped seeking cultural insights through such a self-contained, claustrophobic environment, where it remains an open question whether any liberating or transcendent moments are achieved in this manner. 

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