Parties Aloft: Manakamana

04/09/2014 4:00 AM |

Directed by Stephanie Spray and Pancho Velez

At once a heady structural exercise and a deeply endearing look at people just taking in the scenery, this outstanding documentary unfolds entirely within the 5-by-5-foot confines of a cable car, moving along over a Nepalese valley bounded by foothills and dappled by forests and farmland. The vehicle travels to and from a remote Hindu temple in a matter of minutes; from high up, several different riders spot the trail that pilgrims used to spend days traversing.

Manakamana—a production from the Harvard department that spawned Leviathan, the Sensory Ethnography Lab (currently being celebrated at the Whitney Biennial and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s inaugural Art of the Real series)—develops organically into a meditation on the passage of time, as well as an informal behavioral study on shifts in perspective and states of suspension. We observe a variety of people—elderly worshippers, traveling musicians, and passing-through tourists—quietly restless in their seats, moved by the lush surroundings, antsy at being aloft, and perhaps not quite knowing where to direct their attention while they themselves are under the fixed gaze of the camera. (Not all the passengers are human, though: on one descent, our company is a cargo pen full of tensed goats, bleating as the car rattles by each of the
route’s towers.)

The camera doesn’t move, and directors Spray and Velez don’t cut away, while the metal box is in transport, a single 16mm magazine being just enough to capture every second of each 10-minute one-way ride. (The movie consists of 11 of these.) The correspondences between the apparatuses are not merely durational: the overhead spool threading the cable forward at the car’s terminus might well put viewers in mind of an oversize film reel. We settle in with Manakamana’s collection of travelers for the brief intermediate time that they’re corralled by this pair of whirring machines—idly contemplating, as they hang above a singular landscape, where they’ve been, where they’re going, and the nature of how they’re
getting there.

Opens April 18 at IFC Center