Manakamana is one of the most important films of 2014: not for greater culture or the world at large, but for cinema. Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s documentary about passengers taking a cable car to a Nepalese temple is one of the most unusual films I’ve ever seen.
These filmmakers show an innate understanding of the power of images, even if the film is largely composed of simple locked-off shots. It is minimalist to the point of abstraction, yet experimental in its spartan form. It eschews both storytelling structure and cinematic style and the result is extraordinary. There’s a lot to unpack in Manakamana, but it all comes back to its brilliant simplicity.
This film is a challenging work, and not just because of its glacial pace. At its most basic level, it deconstructs the idea of “cinematic stillness.” Is each shot motionless because the camera and the participants don’t move? Or are the shots inherently kinetic because the tram always keeps parts of the mise en scène moving?
Even though the framing is consistent throughout, each composition is fascinating. Its intense and constant focus on each passenger juxtaposes the minutiae of humanity with the grandiosity of nature. The film forces you to consider these things, because for a while, there’s nothing else to think about.
There’s no dialogue for the first 25 minutes; the travelers early on are pretty sedate. All you’re left with is the image. In some ways, these early scenes (the first segment in particular) are mirrors, with the audience instinctively projecting their own thoughts, emotions and personalities onto the film. Since each segment is in one unbroken take, each lasting about twenty minutes, the film gives you nowhere to go but inwards for a long time.
Manakamana has a lot on its mind. It’s primarily about advancement; the mountain lift serves as a metaphor for technological improvement. One segment features a trio of devout elderly women, at least one of whom visited the temple for many years. At one point she looks down and sees the path that she used to take up the mountain, remarking that “it took me three days when I walked from the village.”
The next segment features a trio of much younger men who take a selfie during the ride. To the first group, the lift is life-changing. To the second, it’s just life. They’re accustomed to technology making their lives easier. The film doesn’t cast judgement on either group, though its filmmaking conceit makes it difficult to do so regardless.
Most films about “technology” in the general sense feel compelled to either praise or bury it, but Manakamana‘s unbiased approach makes it far more potent. Spray and Velez show us there’s something else technology can do: allow us to climb the mountain just as easily as the people in the film.
Many travelogue films steep themselves in a subtle cultural arrogance because there’s an inherent privilege associated with experiencing select aspects of a foreign country and its citizens. Manakamana quite literally levels the playing field. The camera places us eye-to-eye with the other occupants of the lift and never cuts away to fit some shoehorned narrative.
In one segment, a pair of older passengers eat ice cream. The innocuous act quickly becomes an assault on racial prejudice and privilege. It’s the kind of “normal” (heavy quotation marks) thing that movies, and especially documentaries, never show non-white foreign people doing.
Normally the appeal of a travelogue is to experience a culture totally different from your own. Manakamana upends that status quo by removing its subjects from the context of their culture and depicting them as boring, normal people. And paradoxically, the fact that they’re boring makes them all utterly fascinating.
Manakamana is a film full of contradictions like this. It’s hard to imagine that such a sparse movie could also be so dense and rich, but it is. You wouldn’t expect such a slow-paced documentary to be so funny, but it is. You wouldn’t think you’d be enthralled by a twenty-minute shot of goats, but you will be. And although you may think you’ll hate this film just from reading a description, there’s a very good chance you won’t. Manakamana is the biggest surprise of the year so far: an enormously powerful and shockingly entertaining work of art.
Movie Verdict: Win