The latest feature to arrive under the aegis of Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, Manakamana proves no less physical an experience than the lab's Leviathan, which plunged us dizzily into the minutiae of industrial fishing and awakened many to the visceral possibilities of documentary. This time around, landlocked and airborne, viewers ought to at least ward off seasickness.
Far atop the Nepalese mountains 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. 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.
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. The film shows us the world sitting still for 10 minutes at a time, quiet in the company of men and women and the forested vistas around them. I've never seen anything like it.