Manakamana is a spiritual experience.
True, it is filmed inside a cable car that is transporting its passengers to a temple in the foothills of the Nepalese Himalayas dedicated to Manakamana, the Hindu goddess of good fortune. However, the ethereal experience of the film does not only belong to the passengers but also to us, the audience, the voyeurs.
The work is filmed with a fixed 16mm camera and records eleven, roughly eight-and-half-minute trips to and from the temple. This gives the audience the depth of time to watch, listen, observe and internalise these pilgrims. In this hypnotising act of looking, we become pilgrims ourselves, enthralled in a simultaneous internal and external exploration of landscapes.
Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez are the filmmakers behind this work. Stephanie Spray is a filmmaker, phonographer and anthropologist who has been working at the Sensory Ethnography Laboratory at Harvard University since 2006. Her work exploits different media to explore the confluence of social aesthetics and art in everyday life. Since 1999 she has spent much of her time in Nepal, roaming its mountains; studying its music, religion and language; and making films. Pacho Velez’s work sits at the intersection of ethnography, structuralism and political documentary. Though shot in different countries, using distinct formal strategies, his films share a preoccupation with local responses to broad changes wrought by globalisation. He teaches at Bard College.
The influences of the two filmmakers are reflected in the situation of the work geographically, both on a temporal and otherworldly level. The nuances of culture, gender, nationality, age, and marital status are all revealed to us on this journey.
As a trio of elderly women, a pair of young Canadian tourists, a husband and wife, three young men, two musicians and a small herd of goats each take their trip above the rich and verdant landscape, a character study ensues. Each entity is occupying space that someone else previously did. However, even thought they may be travelling along the same route and may have the same destination, they are all worlds apart.
One of the things that I will carry forever with me of this film is the feeling that not only was I watching these people, but that they were watching me too. The camera lens felt like a two-way portal. That feeling of being connected to another time, space and entity engendered feeling of meditative peace and tranquility. It sparked a complex internal dialogue that could not be translated with words.
Manakamana is probably the furthest thing away from Hollywood that I have seen, at least in a long time. It is breathtaking in the boundaries that it challenges and transcendental in its quiet ambition.