The Sensory Ethnography Lab, a collective of researchers and filmmakers based out of Harvard, made a name for themselves last year with the theatrical release of Leviathan, a thunderbolt of experimental nonfiction by directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel. Plunging us dizzily into the minutiae of industrial fishing, Leviathan awakened many to the visceral possibilities of documentary, the film itself heaving and churning alongside a ship's waterlogged undulations as if in the mechanical throes of a theme park simulation. Manakamana, the latest feature to arrive under the aegis of the lab and produced by Castaing-Taylor and Paravel, proves no less physical an experience — though this time around, landlocked and airborne, viewers ought to at least ward off seasickness.
Far atop the Nepalese mountains, above the trees and river valleys, hangs a gleaming modern cable car, installed in the late 1990s to ferry passengers toward a hilltop Hindu temple a little more than a mile and a half from the ground. A journey to the Manakamana temple, where the Hindu goddess Bhagwati is said to grant wishes, used to be a three-day pilgrimage by foot, its own grueling test of faith. By cable car it takes 10 minutes. Directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez set up a Super 16mm camera in one of these 5-by-5-foot cars and filmed their ascent and return, observing in silence and without provocation the pilgrims and tourists frictionlessly whisked into the sky. The process could have yielded anything. From the deluge of raw material Spray and Velez have culled 11 complete rides, each an unbroken take spanning the length of a 16mm magazine. They recorded life as they found it, and yet nothing in the film feels arbitrary. In editing, they derived order from chance.
As Manakamana is an observational film, it should come as no surprise that many of its pleasures relate to looking. There's a sense of wonder in the scrutiny it encourages: Rarely, in our everyday lives, are we afforded the freedom to study the faces of the strangers around us, to find in the tiniest tics and gestures a story on the verge of revealing itself. Neither is the format without its philosophical dimension — questions about the nature of passing time will doubtless satisfy the Deleuze scholars in attendance. (The film emerges from Harvard, after all.) But this is more than an intellectual exercise. Among the many remarkable qualities boasted by Manakamana, perhaps the most surprising is its humor. A dripping ice cream bar, a bobbing rooster, a kitten tangled in its owner's hair: These are the details that make Manakamana a delight. We might say that nonfiction, as its best, shows us the world in a way we've never seen it before — usually by homing in on some peculiar facet of existence and illuminating its idiosyncrasies. But the subject of Manakamana is existence itself, in all its sprawling, endless banality. It shows us the world sitting still for ten minutes at a time, quiet in the company of men and women and the forested vistas around them. And I've never seen anything like it.