AFI Fest 2013: MANAKAMANA Review


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DIRECTED by: ,                                         Film Pulse Score: 6.5/10

The Manakamana temple is situated in the mountains of Nepal.   It is believed that Goddess Bhagwati grants the wishes of all those who make the pilgrimage to her shrine to worship her.  For a time, it was a long pilgrimage that would take days to make and once at the mountain it would take several hours walking uphill.   In 1998, a cable car system was opened that took pilgrims from the base of the mountain to the temple.  What took hours now only takes about ten minutes.   The documentary Manakamana  looks at the people who ride the cable car to and from the temple. 

It is an interesting concept.  Set a camera up in a cable car and film the passengers as they ride.   This is essentially how the entire film unfolds.   Passengers get in, ride and get off.   New passengers get in, ride and get off.  Repeat.  “Life is like a box of chocolates” comes to mind as with each new ride you never know what you’re going to get.   When the car enters the loading zone it becomes dark.  You can hear what’s going on but you cannot see the new occupants until the car breaks out into the sunlight.   It’s like “who are we gonna get?”  Wait for it.   Oh, some more old ladies.

As we watch the ride for the first time you can’t help but take in the scenery outside the window.  On subsequent trips you begin to recognize the geography of where you are in terms of the ride.  You begin to notice the moments when the ride rattles as it passes a tower.   In time you may even lose track of if they are coming or going.  As you watch the passengers you are left to observe them.  What are they thinking?  What are they going to do?  How are they going to react when the car is rattled as it passes a tower?

It certainly isn’t polite to stare but have you ever looked at what other people are doing on the subway, the bus or just sitting in the park.   Spray and Velez seek to capture seemingly natural moments as these people ride the cable car to worship.   Why, seemingly?  The directors actually picked the people to be filmed as opposed to capturing rides candidly.  This knowledge does have the effect of rendering some scenes as calculated as opposed to natural.   Granted there are many moments that do feel completely candid but there is the occasional moment where things feel a bit staged.  There are some moments where subjects either look directly into the camera or are playing to it.

However for every moment that feels manipulated there are grand moments of pure joy.  One ride we unexpectedly finding ourselves riding with goats.  We hear the nervous bleats of one when the car passes a tower.  On another ride a pair of women embarks on a  hilarious adventure of eating an ice cream bar.  Still another has a pair of musicians who use the time to tune their instruments.  There are many other moments of stillness, peculiar conversations, unexpected reactions and deep contemplation.   All captured in a short ten minute ride in cable car.

The film comes from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, the same organization who created the fascinating fishing documentary Leviathan.  While Manakamana has its fair share of dry moments it is a fascinating look at the interactions of a diverse group of people with the same goal that is set against the same backdrop.   It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but if you’re willing to give it a ride you may just find it an enriching experience.

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