No category of film has proven as consistently problematic to me as the term “documentary.” Though it’s sometimes interpreted as a statement of intent (reductively, to present a non-fiction narrative), the term has evolved into a genre descriptor, and an unsatisfying one at that. How do you place Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s muckracking Blackfish in the same category as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s immersive, experimental Leviathan, for instance, or compare either film with Joshua Oppenheimer’s fantasy-baiting The Act of Killing? But the lack of easy catch-all terminology points to the fact that “documentary” is a flourishing form. Many of its innovations have resulted from increasingly complex approaches towards narration: the careful (or not-so-careful) introduction of bias, the use of new technologies, working with unprecedented scope. And, as in many areas of filmmaking, it’s fairly rare these days to see something that’s striking because its concept is so simple.
Manakamana, a film by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, is one surprising example of how powerful a simple concept can be. Produced by the directors of Leviathan, it takes an ethnographic approach to portraying its subjects, but its strictures are so carefully enforced that the effect feels innovative. Spray and Velez set up a camera in a cable car that shuttles pilgrims to the Manakamana temple, which sits at the top of a mountain range in Nepal. Once reachable only by a three hour hike, Manakamana now has a dedicated cable car (the inaugural trip happened fairly recently, in 1998) that shortens the trip to ten minutes.
Spray and Velez chose to document a number of these ten minute trips, creating a series of vignettes that segment the film into a steady rhythm. It’s an exercise in catching undisturbed life through the use of still shots. Each trip, regardless of who’s taking it, lasts the same amount of time, and each trip is filmed uninterrupted from start to finish. On a formal level, the conceit plays with the idea of an unmoving camera: the subjects and the equipment are all rising together, allowing the lens to capture a specific, qualified kind of still frame, made all the more powerful by the trees and sky moving by outside.
In this approach, the film achieves a meditative, almost painterly simplicity. These eleven quiet episodes sometimes stop just short of still portraiture. But true to the nature of filmed observation, which is always more partial than it claims to be, each one contains a magical quality that’s hard to describe. The atmosphere around these people is charged either with anticipation or reflection. One pair of young women have an awkward conversation about journaling and color film, ever so slowly emerging from under the weight of their shared experience. A husband and wife, the only subjects to appear twice, have a few clipped but tender exchanges. Their second appearance draws attention to a subtle shift that occurs halfway through the film, when the filmmakers begin to show people descending the mountain rather than riding to the top.
One episode has no human subjects at all, and is set instead in a special livestock car that holds four goats, presumably on their way to being sacrificed. Despite the fact that the goats have their heads turned for long stretches to look out the back of the car at the receding horizon, it’s a strangely arresting segment, reminiscent of Denis Côté’s Bestiare (TMT Review). The livestock car is more open than the ones intended for humans, the goats’ tails and ears fluttering helplessly in the wind. Whatever your feelings on the animals’ fate, this segment drives home the dizzying height, the disruptiveness of this relatively new technology, and a certain sense of inevitability. All journeys, after all, come to an end.
That last bit is my own, probably biased, interpretation (I really like goats.) Manakamana is a Hindu temple, but the filmmakers don’t offer any critique of religion, cultural practices, or even topics of conversation. Instead, we get snapshots of relationships — an elderly man riding up in near silence with a small boy, two women consuming very drippy ice cream bars together — and, in two cases, purposeful looks at extended moments of solitude. But in ten minutes, there’s so much time. Time to examine the faces in front of you, to ponder what lies in store for them, and to experience the potency of quiet moments.