In Manakamana, (2013), a film by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez (shown at BFI, Southbank, Studio), a cable car in Nepal ferries Hindu devotees and a few tourists back and forth to a lofty mountain shrine. A journey that once took several demanding hours to accomplish can now be negotiated in a relatively effortless 10 minutes. The film is sponsored by an ethnography department at Harvard University and a scientific study of a people could be said to be its primary purpose, however, a subtle form of counter-ethnography may also take place effected by the silence of the subjects we see and their apparent unwillingness to scrutinize or even acknowledge our own gaze. The filmmakers used a fixed 16mm cine camera and equally visible microphone to record portraits, lasting the duration of a ride, of whoever enters the cable car. Most remain silent for much of the journey, perhaps inhibited by shyness, awed by the beauty of the high-altitude experience, or simply gripped by fear.
This functional feat of engineering provides a dreamy ride through cloudy mountains to the holy shrine and most of the people appear dressed for a special occasion. Festive crimson features both in the women’s clothes and the offerings they carry. Among these are flowers and decorations but we also glimpse a live chicken and see a car filled with goats, illustrating the sacrificial tradition welcomed at the shrine.
You might feel impressed and reassured by the devotional lives pictured here, wherein modernity seems no obstacle to tradition, the two never as antithetical as they appear according to a history of Euro-American conflict. The mechanized flight through the sky, the beautiful clothes, even the rapidly melting ice creams that one pair of women struggle to eat in the high temperature, are all gifts from Gods and Goddesses who give order and reassurance to life.
Even in their silence and averted eyes (demonstrating awareness of camera and microphone) the people here ‘speak’ to us, if only through an innate human empathy by means of which we are able to assure one another that we understand, appreciate, respect and appreciate respective differences without recourse to pre-judicial assumption or hierarchical distinction.
Each ride begins and ends in darkness, briefly enhancing our awareness of sound, as the car trundles slowly through the arc of its terminus. Current occupants exit and others replace them, invisibly entering a blackened stage, their appearance and identity revealed only once the car continues out over the sunlit terrain. The audience, placed in the position of camera operator and somewhat like a screen-test judge, enjoys a view, not only of Nepal but also of a procession of fellow beings, each set suddenly before you (reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘10’) candidly exposing an elusive alterity, or in some cases a slightly comical familiarity.
There is no narrative to speak of, the first half of the film is all upward rides, the second half downward, with a brief intermission between featuring darkness and a sound collage. But these artists are motivated less by drama than by a legacy of Structuralist film which subjugates lyricism and expression to concentrate on technical, material and formal parameters of their medium. They thus invite and exploit affinities between the movement of the cable car and representation of motion by cinema; the circularity of both the film transport and the cable car’s procedure; the car’s ‘framing’ window and a single ‘frame’ of film; and the sitter’s position in front of the ‘cinematic’ screen of the car’s window, as if deployed within a ‘green-screen’ or back-projection technique. The filmmakers also noted that this particular ride lasted the same time as a single reel of 16mm film (we witness one reel running out), thus an empathetic visual rhythm emerges from a conspiratorial dialogue between cable-car and cinema.
Nevertheless, the legacy of Structuralism today appears as a slightly tired or insubstantial attempt to redeem and redefine art’s value, form and purpose. Art today is -as it were- ‘suspended’, its remit and responsibility newly stretched in service of a global culture that really has no parameters and thus exposes even the most rigidly self-imposed parameters as a slightly mannered contrivance. Art may have grown self-reflexive in response to a Godless modern world that no-longer had anything above, beyond and against which to judge itself, but by the end of this two-hour film we might suspect that a society whose art and modernity is still in some way connected with the Gods, ritual, sacrifice, prayer and devotion may be a tough act, and a wise guide to follow.
So, setting aside all its neo-Structuralist self-reflexivity, it seems more important that Manakamana simply jolts you out of your immediate environment, in a way that, even today, only film can do, temporarily enfranchising you, in your own hired seat, to go gliding through another world – a most enjoyable way of providing a position from which to question assumptions about yourself through the averted eyes of others.