in 66th Locarno International Film Festival

by Esther Buss

An elderly man and a little boy, filmed with a static camera, sit almost motionless in a cable car. The ride (and the single shot) continues for about ten minutes before they disappear steadily into the darkness, obviously disembarking from the cable car — a darkness that hides a cut, for out of this apparently same black image new people appear, mostly in festive clothes, also taking the car up the mountain (or later down). The destination is the Manakamana temple which lends the film its title, situated in the Gorkha district of Nepal, a sacred place of the Hindu Goddess Bhagwati. What seems to be at first sight a very formal and rigorous configuration, an exercise in duration and motionlessness and an even strangely outdated ethnographic study, soon turns out to be a very smart and also vivid transgression of the restrictions formerly established.

Manakamana by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, shown at this year’s Locarno Film Festival in the Concorso Cineasti del presente section and awarded with a Golden Leopard, performs with very limited means the simultaneity of immobility and movement, between contemplation and bodily experience. Besides, there is also an unpretentious reference to the cinematic apparatus in the way Spray and Velez frame the image, repeated twelve times altogether with slight variations (sometimes the people sit with the mountain at their back; sometimes in front of them) since the large window of the cable car seems to be a screen itself, the undulating landscape passing by like a back projection.

The first full-length film by the two directors is the most recent project by the Sensory Ethnography Lab. It is produced by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, whose aquatic horror film Leviathan stirred up the festival circuit last year. But whereas Leviathan was pure immersion and sensuality, Manakamana negotiates an inward experience as well as a look from the outside. In fact, you feel the swinging of the car, the vibration when it passes the hydraulics of the cable car supports — you even believe you sense a slightly dizziness and a vague pressure on one’s ear while rapidly gaining altitude. At the same time Manakamana offers twelve portraits of different people or pilgrims — alone, in pairs, in a trio; native people, tourists and also a transport car with goats among them — which only on the sidelines touches the realms of ethnography. Indeed their subjects are first and foremost just people who arouse interest because of their facial features, looks, gestures and casual habits. Gradually the film is filled with (ethnographic) history: there are comments on the changes of the environment, the history of the site, its ritualistic background (hence the animals, the chicken, the goats… I hope not the baby cat too?) A wise-looking woman tells two other female pilgrims about the legend of the Manakamana Goddess; also, you learn that the trip to the mountain took three days before the cable car was built and that there was not much of a rural structure some years ago. But most of the time Manakamana catches the pure present, and small narratives take shape: three long-haired young men in black metal T-shirts, each of them equipped with a digital camera, take pictures of themselves and each other in various arrangements; an American backpacker girl worries about not fulfilling the demands of daily diary writing while scribbling something in a notebook; two women, apparently amused, are struggling with their melting ice-cream. It is above all these light and effortless moments that make Manakamana a beautiful and pleasurable journey to participate in and to watch.

Edited by Carmen Gray