Directors: Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez
Starring: Chabbi Lal Gandharba, Anish Gandharba, Bindu Gayek
Producers: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel
Running Time: 118 min
BBFC Certificate: E
The second of my batch of Feb/March documentaries to review is markedly different from the last one, The Overnighters. Where that was a rich political examination of the state of America and followed the emotional journey of a troubled central character over some turbulent times, Manakamana is pure simplicity in content and approach.
The film is made up of cable car journeys made by various people (and some animals) travelling to and from the Hindu Manakamana Temple (which you used to have to hike for a couple of days to reach). And that's it. You don't get any interviewers asking them questions, you don't get a montage of visitors, you don't get any nail-biting thrills where the cable car breaks down. You simply get 11 or 12 unedited 10-minute cable car journeys and nothing else. A couple of people don't even speak or only say a couple of sentences and one journey is actually made by a group of goats!
On paper this might sound like pretentious art-house b*ll*cks and, to be honest, if anyone were to bash the film and call it that, I don't think I'd necessarily argue with them. It is the epitome of “not for everyone” and I don't mean that in a “you have to be an intellectual or documentary connoisseur to appreciate it”. I mean it's the sort of film that you'll either go along with and enjoy or you'll think it's an insanely boring waste of celluloid.
Luckily for me I fell into the former category, although in the back of the mind I kept hearing a little voice saying “what the hell is this?” I've always been a bit of a 'people watcher', which helped. Without wanting to sound like a pervert or a psychopath, I quite like simply watching people when I'm at an airport or train station where I can catch a glimpse of people's lives and witness the wealth of characters the world has to offer. Most people have a bit of voyeur in them I think, which is why reality TV is so popular. Comparing this low key anthropological film to trashy docu-soaps may sound offensive, but I think on some level they can engage in a similar way.
What Manakamana does differently to reality TV of course is keep things as subtle and minimal as possible. In refusing to edit any of the journeys, the audience simply observes these characters as naturally as possible. Of course the camera was probably very visible and you can see some of the people reacting to it (which is actually a nice touch), but largely they are just acting as they would in that situation. The film makes this interesting by selecting a variety of characters to go into the edit (I imagine they filmed a lot more and the deleted scenes give an extra 3 already). You get to witness a great mix of personalities and group dynamics, from a silent young boy and his grandfather (probably) to the members of a metal band taking selfies to an American chatting about her diary entries and photography. You even get a beautiful musical interlude as two musicians tune up and practise on their trip down the mountain.
For much of the time there isn't a lot happening of course, but the constant hum of the cable car, the never ending movement and the picturesque backdrop all put you in a sort of trance and the experience becomes quite meditative, allowing you to ponder what brought these people to the temple and what might be going on in their minds. The film gives you time to reflect on yourself too as it quietly trundles along. As well as some quiet thoughtful moments, you do get some lighthearted and sweet ones too. The elderly ladies trying to eat half-melted choc-ices as they travel down the mountain is a fun portion for instance.
The cyclical, repetitive, rhythmic nature of the film works in its favour too. If there's a dull traveller/group (did we need the goats?) you know they're going to be replaced in 10 minutes and when the car goes into the darkness at the end of the trip it's strangely exciting waiting to see who's next.
I don't quite know how to critique Manakamana in the same way I would most films and I'm not going to give it a star rating because it really depends on your attitude towards it. However, I will say it's an experience like no other and I found it strangely captivating. The 2 hour running time went by surprisingly quickly considering very little actually happens. I found myself a little baffled by it perhaps (I'm not a very spiritual person so the fact that they're travelling to a temple didn't register with me as powerfully as it might), but at the same time I enjoyed it as a calming, hypnotic glimpse of life as it happens.
Manakamana is released on DVD and VOD on 9th February in the UK by Dogwoof. I watched the DVD version and the picture quality was fine. It was shot on 16mm so don't expect a sharp grain free picture, but the DVD does its source material justice. You get a choice of stereo or 5.1 audio – I listened to the latter and sounded great.
For special features you get 3 extra cable car rides (i.e. deleted scenes), a trailer for the film (which does a good job of a potentially hard sell) and trailers for three other Sensory Ethnographic Lab films released by Dogwoof (Leviathan, Sweetgrass, Foreign Parts).