Rating:We go to the movies to watch people. Manakamana, the most recent film from Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, strips away all the conventions from movies. It leaves us to do nothing but watch, creating a pure film experience that removes character, plot and all the other things that distract from the pure visual experience of movie-going. The premise is simple: Manakamana charts 11 different journeys as nine sets of people and one group of goats ride a cable car up and down a mountain in Nepal. Directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez film each 10 minute voyage with a fixed camera, forcing us to contemplate nothing more than faces and the journey.
The first two trips are completely silent. In fact, no one speaks in Manakamana’s first 20 minutes, giving us time to settle into the film’s rhythm by foisting the most difficult journeys on us first. Naturally, the rides with talkative inhabits are easier to watch, but that’s the whole point of Manakamana. By forcing us to step away from our technology-laden lives of instant updates, we can settle into a groove where watching people simply traverse a mountain in near silence can be interesting. It leaves you to draw connections between all the riders, young and old, making associations that may or may not actually exist. Multiple riders comment on the same things as they float past. Young metal heads and old ladies alike complain about their ears popping as they gain altitude.
Of course, the geography is also part of the picture, some beautiful green mountains that actually play second fiddle to the riders in the cable car. As we take the same trip, we begin to memorize the topography, even gleaning the godlike ability to guess when a rider will comment on a village, wince when the cable car bounces near a tower or marvel when the ascent becomes sharp near the journey’s end. But nothing is more stunning than watching people who live in a third world nation ride a first world technological marvel. But that dichotomy isn’t the main thrust in Manakamana. Instead, we are invited to look deep as two ladies try to devour some rapidly melting ice cream bars, giggling as they run down their arms in milky streams.
If you have seen Sweetgrass or Leviathan, you know the Sensory Ethnography Lab does not make conventional films. But while Sweetgrass and Leviathan have a definite political slant, Manakamana is deceptively simpler in its conceit. There is no monstrous fishing vessel chewing up an ocean full of animals or an end of an era sheep run here. Instead, Manakamana is a dare, a challenge to its audience, one that trusts us to fill in the story, bring our perceptions and prejudices to what we see on the screen. One that never once tells us what or how to think.