Several years ago the Chicago Transit Association adopted a new rail seating design that primarily featured aisle-facing seating. Whereas riders were once privy to seeing the back of a fellow passenger’s head, new seating involves riders looking directly at each other (barring a standing riders’ crotch or buttock obstructing your view). But this new seating arrangement, manifested to maximize space and latently provoking conversation among riders, tends to avert eyes rather than bring them together. Passengers tend to stare at one’s phone or simply stare past the person in front of them to the passing Chicagoland scenery. It’s a rarity that one ever directs their view toward another passenger lest they be accused of staring.
Manakama positions its audience in this voyeuristic role where viewers are free to stare. It’s a film set in a cable car gondola that transports visitors to and from the titular spiritual site. Set in the vibrant green mountains of Nepal, the picture is a studious exercise in ethnographic contemplation and a beguiling display of film editing.
Part of the picture’s immersive quality stems from how directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez suggest that the film could’ve occurred through a single take. It’s an impressive sleight of hand, one that recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, whereby a series of hidden cuts instill the sense that the camera remains in the same gondola throughout the duration of the picture. The immersion is a skilled combination of visual design and sound editing, where the cable car feels as if it moves endlessly.
Manakamana opens with the sound of moving cable cars. The grinding gears and mechanical strain of something industrial seem increasingly bizarre provided the lush setting. But Spray and Velez open on a black screen that gives way to the slightest hint of light before the silhouettes that sit in the cable car take shape, their features defined by a flush of sunlight. The first passengers are an elderly man and a small boy - grandfather and grandson, perhaps? We’re never privy to the details as the two observe the scenery, buckling slightly when the rocking cable car hits upon a rocky stretch. They don’t say a word with their image fading to black upon reaching the dimly lit entry/exit point.
The same process occurs again: the sound of the moving cable car, a black screen giving way to the slightest hint of light before the silhouette in front of us is given definition by the burst of sunlight. A structure like this may have been undone by repetitiveness but Spray and Velez nurture the material through their spry editing and development of particular thematic ideals. While rides one and two are contain no dialogue, ride three involves a conversation between husband and wife. The first line of dialogue between them is an open acknowledgement of the physicality of the ride - the high altitude and movement of the gondola is making the wife’s ears pop. This sentiment ends up getting echoed throughout the film, to particular comic effect on ride five where a triad of boorish young men joke around about their ears popping, all the while taking selfies.
Ride six, not to be spoiled, only accentuates the comic sensibility that Spray and Velez are adopting. The two are clearly having fun with their extensive material (the shoot apparently took years to complete). The playfulness of this exercise is highlighted more so on ride nine, where two women attempt to eat their melting ice cream. Like the three young men from ride five, they would’ve hoped that the cable car offered some air conditioning as their vanilla ice cream gets all over their hands and clothes.
Manakamana, produced by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, adheres to a set of principles that resist traditional classification. Its editing process doesn’t quite position it as cinema vérité while its evocations are broader and more visceral than a documentary. Regardless, it’s a potent exercise and a conceptual revelation: perhaps next time the duo might consider filming on a Chicago Red Line train to conduct a similar, if not more dangerous, ethnographic study.