Manakamana, the latest from Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, forgoes any classical-narrative sense of significance, instead opting for a structuralist framework that allows, among other things, the first and third world to come into direct conflict and, as an additive, filmmaking traditions to be countered as well. Set in Chitwan, Nepal at the Manakamana Temple, the film lingers on 11 cable-car trips with nine different sets of people (one trip is with a group of goats, and the final excursion is a repeat). Thus, each journey begins with new faces emerging from the dark, loud recesses of the cable-car hub. Ernst Karel’s incredible sound design suggests the system’s cranks and electronic workings as some sort of birth site, where one car enters the darkness, slowly rotates, and shoots out another, but with different faces.
The occupants range from completely silent, as is the case with the first two rides, to consistently talkative, as with three teenage rockers that take the trip. Directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez shoot the rides in 16mm, all in stable long take, each from the same vantage point—centered on the subjects, in medium shot. Camera stability (and initial silence) makes wondrous the film’s first spoken word, much less the first full-blown conversation. Manakamana needs little dialogue to articulate its deceptively simple structure, which slyly finds various binaries forming and coming into conflict: first and third world, old and new traditions, and so on. Yet the filmmakers’ dialogic aesthetics transcend simple binary operation to speak to the formative aspects of cinema: that which has the capacity to orient a viewer to a new space. Rather than offering an easily discernible polemic about any number of issues specific to the region, Spray and Velez insist that altered spectatorship, particularly patience and duration, is the foundation of cinematic edification.
Forcing the viewer to gaze at subjects moving through space via an immobile camera creates peculiar spatial relationships; the background could easily be mistaken as a rear-projection effect, especially without the assistance of establishing shots. Manakamana invites such discussions of film form through its very structure, but this isn’t a purely academic work, as evidenced through a striking scene where two riders each struggle to eat their melting ice cream bars. By combining academic formal interests with less austere content, Spray and Velez join Ben Rivers as new filmmakers engaged in practicing a playful kind of slow cinema, particularly because questions of first- and third-world divisions remain largely at Manakamana’s periphery, instead taking more joyous moments of human behavior as its primary interest. Such an approach immediately recalls Two Years at Sea, which examines the quirks and idiosyncrasies of its protagonist in lieu of directly connecting his struggle to larger geopolitical issues.
If Manakamana is smaller in scope than other Sensory Ethnography Lab films like Sweetgrass or Leviathan, and perhaps even less accessible because of its long, stable takes, Spray and Velez refute esoterica by rendering their thematic concerns in an altered version of the high-concept blockbuster. Each set piece offers long periods of silence, aimless gazes, and peculiar behavior instead of fast-paced action and violence. The film is all climax, pure spectacle, but of a different order. As such, it implicitly asks whether moviegoers have lost their ability to sit for two hours with an artwork that may thoroughly test their capacity for duration, but offer almost none of the accustomed thrills. The film’s insistence on rekindled patience, compassion, and an ability to view a world through varied lenses make it a peculiar kind of structuralist essay film—and one of the most urgent in recent memory.