By Robert Koehler
Possibly more than the previous feature and short work produced by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, which includes the groundbreaking Sweetgrass and Leviathan, Manakamana (distributed by Cinema Guild, opening today at Laemmle’s Music Hall) marks a crucial intersection of the three of the most interesting developments in contemporary cinema.
Stephanie Spray’s and Pacho Velez’ 16mm film (blown up to 35mm) embraces the essence of “slow cinema,” in which tempo and rhythm are intentionally geared to andante and beyond. Just as “slow food” allows the senses and palate to take time to absorb and appreciate flavors and textures, the slow cinema exemplified in Manakamana permits eyes and ears the space and time to explore, contemplate and get lost. The movie perfectly sums up “in-between cinema,” that vast realm between fiction and non-fiction where actual figures take on fictional and even mythical essence in front of the lens, where the real is viewed through an expansive perspective that obliterates old forms of televised, instructional “documentary.” It also stands as a supreme example of anthropological cinema, applying observational rigor to cultural groups and traditions, a direct inheritor of the early experiments of Jean Rouch but aware of the much older stream that extends back to Robert Flaherty, arguably the creator of the first anthropological in-between films.
Perhaps too much of the justifiably ecstatic praise heaped on this remarkable film has lost track of its anthropological roots. It’s not just that Spray and Velez (a CalArts grad) are, like J.P. Sniadecki (Foreign Parts, People’s Park), among the most gifted grads of S.E.L., but that Spray’s previous work especially provides the basis out of which Manakamana emerges. Before her collaboration with Velez, Spray made three mid-length films in Nepal observing the Gayek family; her third piece, titled As Long as There’s Breath, is the best known and has travelled to fine international festivals like FIDM in Montreal. Not only do the Gayeks gradually grow used to Spray’s subtle and unobtrusive camera (this is very different from the bravura, physical camera of S.E.L. co-founder Lucien Castaing-Taylor in his co-directed Sweetgrass and Leviathan), but the viewer can feel that she is coming to understand the family, their anxieties, even their darkest demons.
Fatalism seeps into the family discussion, and because this is ethnography, it must govern Spray’s film: It’s part of the content of what she’s recording, revealing textures of family life only possible through patient, time-consuming observation. Such an attitude doesn’t inform Manakamana, comprised of 11 fixed shots approximately 9 ½ minutes long observing visitors to Nepal’s Manakamana temple in the Himalayan foothills. But the same ethnographic rigor is at work, only in a more voluptuous, epic frame. The visitors are seen riding in an aerial tramway car, some arriving, some departing, some viewed from the temple side of the ride, some from the base side. Spray’s considerable experience in Nepal, her way of developing a second-nature relationship with people in this ancient, complex culture, allows Manakamana to open into a panorama of humanity in a particular place at a particular time. Departing from her previous intimate studies, Spray has found the ideal space for a wide range of folks to reveal themselves: In one shot early in the film, a serious-looking pilgrim holding a traditional bouquet of flowers in her lap cracks a smile for a moment. The sacred comes down to earth, even as we’re being transported into the clouds.
Velez’s camera is ingenious. He rests it at a comfortable distance from the temple visitors, more or less the distance that a fellow traveler might have if facing them. He uses the tram’s large windows as a way to turn the images into stunning 2-D moving shots, so while the visiting pilgrims generally sit still, the Himalayan background is in constant movement, receding or revealing depending on the camera position. There can be comedy going on in the foreground—a woman struggling with her dripping ice cream cone always gets a laugh with audiences—while the dynamic background is constantly unfolding, like a scroll. This works in tandem with sound designer Ernst Karel, a crucial collaborator in most of the important S.E.L. projects, who heightens Spray’s sound recordings of the tram itself. As part of a field recording series for the German-based label Gruenrekorder, Karel has made a CD recording, “Swiss Mountain Transport Systems,” that turns the weird grinding and cranking of aerial trams into rhythmic sound patterns, something close to music (Karel is a trained classical trumpeter) but not quite. The same quality runs through the soundtrack of Manakamana, completing a highly complex yet seemingly simple piece of integrated cinema, where the material, the spiritual and the absurd all get into a groove and go to Nirvana.