William Blake’s oft-quoted observation about finding the world in a grain of sand comes to mind more than once during “Manakamana,” the latest in a string of marvelously original non-fiction features to emerge from Harvard U.’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Here the grain of sand is a cable car system high in the mountains of Nepal, ferrying passengers to and from the titular temple of a sacred Hindu goddess. And without once leaving the confines of the car itself, directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez manage to craft a vast and revealing portrait of both their chosen locale and the people who pass through it. A double prize-winner at Locarno, this deceptively simple, one-of-a-kind achievement will continue to keep a busy festival dance card and should attract small but passionate crowds in limited theatrical play.
Overseen by director Lucien Castaing-Taylor (“Sweetgrass,” “Leviathan”), the Sensory Ethnography Lab projects (which also include Libbie Dina Cohn and J.P. Sniadecki’s audacious, single-shot “People’s Park”) have all sought to immerse the viewer in foreign, sensorally stimulating environments while freely experimenting with the formal possibilities of nonfiction cinema. In “Leviathan,” that equated to a willful blurring of the line between the filmmakers and their own subjects, as a dozen small digital cameras were passed between film crew and the crew of a commercial fishing boat. Here, it expresses itself in the seemingly restrictive device of keeping the camera confined to its single (albeit moving) location and, even more perversely, shooting on 16mm film in 400-foot magazines just long enough to capture the cable car’s approximately 10-minute, one-way journey.
Digital surely would have been easier, but given that one of “Manakamana’s” running themes is the tension between the ancient and the modern, it’s fitting that Spray and Velez chose to make the film in an almost obsolete format (that will necessitate digital projection in most venues), the click-click-click of the camera’s shutter complementing the electric hum of the cable car itself on the soundtrack. Up, up, up they go and down, down, down they come — villagers in traditional dress, hipster youths in graphic tees, and even the odd foreign tourists (much like the filmmakers themselves). Each journey plays out in its entirety, beginning with the cable car departing one station and ending with its arrival at the other, followed by an almost imperceptible fade to black as one set of riders dismounts and another climbs aboard. Indeed, one never knows who — or what — will appear in the passenger seat next.
From a distance, the movie seems effortless, as if Spray and Velez had simply gone out for the day, hitched a ride on the Manakamana express and reported back with their results. Up close, it reveals a more intricate undercarriage than many a scripted feature. A trained ethnographer, the American-born Spray has lived and worked in Nepal since the late ’90s, and together with Velez spent a long pre-production period getting to know the village locals and “casting” the film with subjects who, by virtue of their comfort with the filmmakers, could effectively “play” themselves without being distracted by the presence of the camera and crew (leading some viewers to mistakenly believe that Spray and Velez were not even present in the cable car during the shooting).
Yet for all its manipulations and self-imposed restrictions, “Manakamana” is expansive, intricate and surprisingly playful. Some of Spray and Velez’s subjects sit stoically before the camera, saying nothing (nearly 30 minutes pass before the first lines are spoken). Others, like three elderly wives of a shared husband, chat up a veritable storm about their lives and about the landscape passing below. Certain observations unite the disparate passengers: the large hills; the corn fields; clusters of houses where before there were none; and an old path by which worshippers used to trek to the temple, back when the journey took days instead of minutes. And it’s one of the mysteries of the film that, while those landmarks are largely framed out of the closeup images, we nevertheless form a vivid mental picture of what they must be like.
Some remark on the cable car itself, from the optical illusion of the seemingly stationary cable to the pressure the high altitude places on one’s ears. Two sarangi players even offer a brief history of the cable car’s construction before launching into an impromptu musical number. And in one sequence that is pure magic, two women returning from the temple enact a disarming bit of slapstick with a couple of rapidly melting ice-cream sandwiches. Yet another man, seen twice (going up and down), gazes at his watch at just the moment some in the audience, not feeling the movie’s very particular but hypnotic rhythm, might be doing the same thing — a wry in-joke, a happy accident, or maybe both.