Is it a Zen meditation or a travel documentary? An ethnological treatise or an essay on changing religious practices? Is it about landscapes or the people who pass through them? Or is it just a testament to the godlike efficiency of Austrian cable-car technology?
Whatever it is, “Manakamana” is a haunting experience, one that requires patience (and then some) but that offers spiritual, philosophical, and aesthetic rewards beyond the immediate power of words to describe. It’s also further proof that Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab is at the forefront not just of documentary filmmaking but of redefining and altering the ways we see and process information. “Manakamana” is a trip.
Eleven trips, actually — six up a mountain and five down. Directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez anchored a 16mm camera to the floor of a cable car taking Hindu religious pilgrims to and from the Manakamana Temple, 4,300 feet above sea level on a ridge south of Gorkha, Nepal. The journey takes about nine minutes each way — about the same duration, coincidentally, as a roll of film. The subjects (who agreed to be filmed) sit framed against an immense window that reveals the landscape rolling toward them or away, lushly green or forbiddingly mountainous. The movie records their faces as they take in the journey.
But what faces! At times, “Manakamana” seems to hold the entire human species in its lens. The passengers in the first shot are an old man wearing a tribal hat and a young boy in a baseball cap; they spend the nine minutes in silence while we search their faces for clues and relationships. They could be the 19th and 21st centuries riding together in the same enclosed space. The screen goes briefly dark as the cable car moves into the underlit upper station and when it reemerges, the man and boy are gone, replaced by a serene middle-aged woman with a lifetime of hard experience etched on her features. It’s a breathtaking effect, as if the filmmakers had darkened the stage lights before introducing their next act.
It’s also a bit of a dodge, since Spray and Velez have cut together two separate shots and we’re once more ascending the holy mountain from the bottom. Formally speaking, “Manakamana” is both absurdly simple and absurdly rich, but because the movie is lacking in explanatory titles or introductory narration, it takes quite a while for viewers to get their bearings. Are we on one contiguous but segmented trip up a very big mountain? Were the filmmakers present behind the camera? Is this unfolding in real time or even on the same day? Such questions detract from the nearly existential immediacy of the visuals and the ways in which we respond to them.
Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, an interdisciplinary meeting ground of media and anthropology, is run by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, whose groundbreaking “Sweetgrass” (2009) and “Leviathan” (2012, made with Verena Paravel) visually explore the labors of, respectively, sheepherders in the American West and fishermen working out of New Bedford. Those films tend toward beautiful abstraction (“Leviathan” especially), while “Manakamana,” produced under the SEL’s auspices, deals with concrete reality. It seems to, anyway. The more you look, the less certain you may be.
The cable-car passengers turn out to be a varied lot, from a trio of little old ladies who appear to be married to the same man to three long-haired Nepali rockers flashing devil-horns and taking selfies with their digital cameras. Some of the segments are silent, some are filled with chitchat; occasionally, we get both. A young American tourist sits with her Nepali friend in what seems like wordless alienation until they begin talking blithely about her camera (it’s analog — oh, the irony). Two traditional musicians toting their fiddles banter for a bit, then tune up and begin to play — and suddenly, we’re in a concert film.
This is as basic as the act of recording reality gets, and “Manakamana” is a profoundly cleansing experience if you’re up to its rigor. The experience is similar to Godfrey Reggio’s recent “Visitors” and even more so to Andy Warhol’s “screen tests” in the mid-1960s: unadorned frontal portraits (again, the length of a roll of film) that prove only how the human mind, faced with the blank canvas of a face, pours narrative meaning into it. As we watch the pilgrims rise and descend, we fill in their backstories for ourselves, providing the “plot” the filmmakers withhold.
Even genre is mutable: The only passengers we see twice — going up and coming down — are a married couple taking a rare trip together, and whether you’re watching a tender romantic comedy or a strained domestic drama will depend on you. The one segment that resists interpretation is a shot of four goats in an open cargo car, bound probably for sacrifice at the top. Even so, we helplessly feel their bleating confusion. “Manakamana” is a two-way street in which a movie and its audience project endlessly back at each other. After a while, you’re not sure who’s sitting in that cable car and who’s out there in the dark.