In a 2013 appearance on Conan O’Brien’s talk show, comedian Louis C.K. went on a rant against texting, complaining that whenever people check their phones during an idle moment, they miss out on the simple, restorative virtue of quietly not doing anything, and just “being a person.” That isn’t a problem for the subjects of the documentary Manakamana, and won’t be for anybody who goes to see Manakamana. Filmmakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, working with Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab—best known for its involvement with the visceral fishing documentary Leviathan—constructed Manakamana out of 11 static takes of pilgrims, tourists, and animals taking cable-car rides to and from a mountaintop temple in Nepal. Manakamana is both calming and imagination-sparking, forcing viewers to look at human faces for 10-minute stretches, whether those faces are talking excitedly or quietly looking around.
It takes nearly 25 minutes before any of the cable-car passengers say a word, which gives the audience time to adjust to the parts of the ride that are going to be the same every time: the darkness of the stations on either end, the soft clatter of the 16mm camera, the way the car shudders and sways as it crosses over each pole, and the lush greenery of the mountain as it passes below. Manakamana documents five trips up and five trips down (plus one trip with only goats as cargo), and because the passengers sometimes sit facing forward and sometimes sit facing backward, the camera catches different angles of the mountain. But Spray and Velez mostly just show these people, many of whom are dressed in their finery, carrying offerings up or souvenirs down. Because the audience is stuck with the same basic view for 10 full minutes at a time, there’s no choice but to look at what they’re wearing and what they’re carrying, and to think about it. The movie becomes like staring intently at a particularly well-composed photograph in a museum.
Even when the passengers do talk, there’s information missing. They don’t address the camera, or say who they are. The audience can’t see what the passengers are looking at when they talk about the sal trees, or the old trail up the mountain that used to take days to hike. The passengers don’t always get to complete their conversations before the trip ends, either, and while some of the same people come back for the trip down the mountain, the film doesn’t reveal any more about them. Also, some of the items they’ve brought with them dip in and out of the frame—especially the animals, such as a chicken that unexpectedly pops up halfway through one trip, and a kitten that three young heavy-metal fans pass around. During one trip, a goat fills the frame with its rear-end for a few minutes, briefly turning the movie into a pensive study of one goat’s asshole.
Like a lot of structuralist films, Manakamana has a little trouble satisfying the “But is it art?” question. Spray and Velez did reportedly “cast” their film, spending time with the locals before deciding who to shoot. And as with the previous Sensory Ethnography Lab films, Manakamana features some remarkable sound design, filling in the passengers’ experience with the noises they hear drifting by (some of which sound like they could be coming from the passengers in other scenes). But otherwise, there’s very little authorial intervention in the film, apart from someone having the idea in the first place. The camera just gets what it gets, for the length of the ride, with no cuts or moves. And that can make Manakamana difficult to unpack, since it feels more like an experience than a movie.
Nevertheless, the experience is rewarding, especially given that it’s so simple. Maybe that’s because the passengers look so fragile and human, even when they’re all gussied up, which means the longer they’re onscreen, the more affecting it becomes just to watch them. Or maybe it’s because the rigidity of 10-minute scenes has a cumulatively profound effect. There’s no speeding these moments up, or extending them. If passengers unwrap ice-cream bars that start to melt, they’re stuck with that mess as long as the ride lasts. And no matter what they say and do, the finality of the terminal always looms.