A cable car leaves a dark station. The static camera from inside the car shows an old man with a young boy sitting side-by-side, looking at the beautiful green scenery as the car climbs to its location. During the entire 10-minute ride, the old man and the boy don't speak to each other as we hear the sounds of the cable car ride reverberate around us as if we're a part of the ride. It's an uncut take, showing the ride from its beginning to its end until the car reaches the top of the mountain.
There isn't an opening text describing who these people are, where this car is or where it's going. Only by reading the film's description online or on the Blu-Ray box do we understand that we were inside a cable car that takes worshippers and tourists to the legendary Manakamana temple in Nepal. Once the old man and the boy reach their destination, the film dissolves seamlessly into another ride showing a woman taking the trip by herself. She doesn't speak either, and just like before, we watch her entire ride up to the temple.
Gradually, we begin to realize that this is what Manakamana will be in its entirety. Composed of eleven rides up and down the cable car route, Manakamana is either a frustrating nuisance you will shut off a couple of minutes into its two-hour runtime or a gorgeous, meditative experience observing the various connections between people and nature. Your reaction depends on whether or not the above description of this refreshingly objective documentary sounded invigorating, interesting or downright a waste of time.
There isn't any narrative, the camera simply focuses on the passengers. The directors behind the camera, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, never ask any questions to their subjects or interact with them. In fact, they never even let their presence known. By the time we get to the third ride, focusing on a couple on their way to perhaps sacrifice a chicken to the goddess, we get a little bit of information about where we are through their interaction.
As we witness rides with a trio of metalheads, a trio of old women and two women trying futilely to eat ice cream without spilling it on their clothes, we get minimal amounts of information here and there about the temple, but that information solely depends on the conversations they organically engage in. In between these more talkative rides, we get back to a meditative state as we watch an entire ride with a bunch of goats and another with two musicians who tune their instruments.
The most interesting ride, in my opinion, takes place between a white girl and a brown woman, who look like they're strangers during the first five minutes of the ride. Eventually, it turns out that they're indeed friends and perhaps they went on this journey to Nepal together. Were they being awkward around each other at first because they were too aware of the camera's presence?
It was interesting to hear the white girl talk about how hard it was to write on her diary every day. She tells her friend that sometimes nothing really interesting happens to her during a day so she wonders whether or not it's worth it to document something that's so mundane. In that moment, the film unintentionally reaches meta status.
Manakamana was obviously made to be experienced in a theatre, without any distractions and the temptations of fast forwarding through the many silent scenes, which I believe would ruin the process as it was meant to be absorbed. It's an intensely meditative experience and if you just let it envelop you, it's very rewarding both spiritually and intellectually.
I watched it in my basement, in the dark, where I have a projector system set up. If I watched it upstairs on my HDTV with the many distractions of outside life, I don't think I would have been able to appreciate it as much as I did.
Manakamana was shot on 16mm film, utilizing an entire 400-foot roll during each of the rides. Each roll incidentally amounts to around 10 minutes of footage, the exact runtime of the cable car ride. I think shooting on film instead of digital allowed the filmmakers to be more selective with their subjects. After all, they could have just set up the camera and let it run for an entire week only to pick and choose during post-production. All in all, 35 rides were filmed and we get to watch 11 of them during the finished film. The transfer looks enthralling as the beautiful green background of the rides blend perfectly with the colorful passengers in the foreground. There are a couple of instances of dirt on the film stock but otherwise this is a clean 1080p transfer.
The DTS-HD 5.1 track is a very important part of the experience and you will lose a lot of definition if you listen to the film through standard TV speakers. The diagetic sound recorded during the rides have been mixed into the surround channels with an admirable attention to detail. All of the tracks come to life depending on where the cable car is at any given time, making the audience feel like they're part of the ride.
Audio Commentary with The Directors: Directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez talk about the process of shooting this unusual film. Pretty much any questions you might have about the film are answered here, from the identities of each passenger to many other technical details. It's very informative but also takes away a little from the film's mystery.
Additional Rides: Three more rides are shown via raw footage. It's interesting that the second ride between two businessmen actually gives a lot of information about the temple. Its exclusion from the finished film further proves that the filmmakers intended Manakamana to be more of an experience rather than an informative documentary.
A Theatrical Trailer and other Trailers from the Sensory Ethnography Lab (A Harvard lab that focuses on producing immersive experiences like Manakamana. They produced the equally meditative Leviathan) and Cinema Guild are also included.
My recommendation depends on your interest in this kind of subject material. If you require a strict narrative from documentaries, then Skip it. If it sounds interesting, then Rent it. If you eat up this kind of material and was a huge fan of other SEL projects, then it comes Highly Recommended.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com