Friday, November 21, 2014


Near Chitwan, Nepal, cable cars ascend immense green hills to a mountaintop shrine.  This is the temple of a goddess, Manakamana, and believers visit her shrine with sacrificial offerings, hoping that their wishes will be granted.  The documentary film made about this place is a production of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, released in 2013, and directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez.  The Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab is probably the world's foremost producer of lyrical, if demanding, documentaries:  the group is responsible for Sweetgrass, a film about the last sheep drive over Montana's Bear Paw Mountains and the hallucinogenic Leviathan, an impressionistic documentary about a fishing ship trolling the turbulent waters of the North Atlantic.  These films are presented as raw data, without voice-over and, in the case of Manakamana without any explanatory intertitles.  The audience is immersed in strange images and sounds and forced to draw their own conclusions about the filmed data -- the effect is exhilarating but, also, infuriating in its purity and refusal to explain the mysterious things that we are shown.  Manakamana is an example of remarkably lucid and powerful minimalist film-making.  The film consists of a single shot repeated 11 times in a film that is about 90 minutes long.  Six shots show ascents in the cable car to the shrine apparently located in the majestic foothills to the Himalayas.  Five shots depict the cable car and its passengers descending from the shrine.  The footage seems to have been recorded by a camera concealed so as to face the passengers seated across the car from the hidden lens.  There is no narration or diagetic music; although, in one scene, two musicians play a duet on wooden peg instruments called sarangi.  Each shot begins in darkness in the cable-car shed.  We hear indistinct voices, the bleating of goats, and, then, perceive the shadowy silhouette of a person against the dim light of the building.  The car lurches forward and we see a great wheel turning overhead and, then, as the compartment brightens, we find ourselves staring at the passengers seated across from the camera.  The car zooms upward (or falls with scary speed) and the camera dispassionately records the passengers and a the vast landscape that the cable car traverses:  lush green mountains, either terraced or forested with Sal trees, steep zigzagging paths, sheds and houses on a ridge -- when the cable car passes that place we sometimes hear music and people calling to one another below -- and the steel pylons supporting the cables; when the car passes across the pylon, it rumbles and shifts, dislodging the passengers slightly.  The ride ends in another dim shed and the image darkens into complete blackness.  We hear machinery and gears rattling and, then, a shadowy form emerges, a silhouette, and, as the car is pulled forward, we see the next set of passengers replacing those that we have previously observed.  In the context of the ascent of the sacred mountain, the effect is undeniably poetic and lyrical:  the great turning wheel seems to symbolize reincarnation and the passage up (or down) the mountain, although completely factual and undramatized, is an allegory for human existence:  life begins in darkness, rises or falls, and, then, ends in another dark place where we await the next passenger or group of passengers in the cable car.  The round-trip ride lasts 17 minutes, but the film is edited so that we see six ascents one after another and, then, five descents from the temple.  In only one case, do we see people both before and after their visit to the temple -- the film shows us a farmer and his small, apparently ill, wife both ascending and descending.  The couple scarcely speak and the dour farmer holds a beautiful rooster in his arms; man and wife are dressed in what seems to be their Sunday best and, when they come down from the mountain, the rooster is dead, although we see only its feet in the image -- the camera is immobile.  We can't read from anyone's face any sort of religious inspiration or any kind of devotion or ecstasy.  The temple itself is off-limits -- we don't even glimpse it and have no idea what takes place in the shrine.  (Obviously, there are sacrifices, possibly of flowers, roosters, and goats -- but we have no idea how those sacrifices are performed or what they mean.)  Some people return from the mountaintop with small souvenirs or ice-cream treats -- in one comical sequences, a woman and someone who might be her elderly aunt eat ice-cream bars that melt, covering them with goo.  (The younger woman shields her nice sari with a plastic bag, but the older lady isn't equipped to protect herself against the melting ice-cream; surprisingly, the younger woman does nothing to help her.)  The apparent asymmetry between the number of trips ascending and descending is explained by the fact that the last uphill ride involves four tethered goats who bleat pitifully as their open car rumbles between cables at the pylons.  It's a haunting image and one that doesn't bode well for the sacrificial animals.  One man mentions that it used to take three days to walk from the nearby village to the mountain shrine.  Two American girls sit in morose silence and seem to have quarreled before getting on the cable car to descend the mountain -- but they brighten and talk cheerfully as the car flies down the hill: one girl is writing in a journal and they both "hydrate" themselves by drinking water from bottles and canteens.  By contrast, the Nepalese are mostly silent.  The travelers are an old man and his grandson, a handsome, formidable-looking woman with a decorated bucket full of garlands, the dour farmer and his petite wife (she says that her wish has come true to see the shrine and its goddess), three old ladies who comment on the beauty of the landscape, three boys who take selfies of themselves with their phones, and, then, the four goats.  The people descending the mountain are a woman with a wooden souvenir, the two American girls who are warm and fan themselves with their journals, the women with the ice-cream bars, two musicians with sarangi, and, finally, the grim-looking farmer and his wife -- the farmer looks at his watch several times.  He seems angry that he has taken time from work and sacrificed his rooster to this foolishness.  Manakmana is not to all tastes and it is undeniably dull at times.  But it is a major work of art and its peculiar form is necessary and intrinsic to its meaning. What does it mean?  Many things:  the sacred is invisible in our world; our encounter with the sacred leave no visible impression; we come from darkness and end in darkness; goats are readily frightened and the visible world is a beautiful, mysterious place.  (I saw the film in the only way that it is available for a home viewer -- that is Netflix streaming:  this is not the way to watch the film because there is no commentary and no short explanatory segments to provide context.  The work of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab is important and brilliant, but context is necessary to better understand these films -- and in a streaming format, there's no way to obtain that context.  And the fact that context is required to fully appreciate these remarkable films illustrates both their excellence and their deficiencies as documentaries.) 

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