There are a lot of things that can be good about this kind of structural filmmaking. In the case of Manakamana, which takes the form of 11 shots of just over 10 minutes duration each, it’s in the faces and behaviour of its subjects. These are people who are travelling either to or from the eponymous temple, located on a mountaintop in Nepal, and which is primarily reached by a cable car. The film’s 11 unmoving shots are all from within one of these carriages, and there’s little enough to say about the form beyond that — in its rigorous and spare way, it’s reminiscent of the nature-focused pieces by US director James Benning, like Ten Skies or 13 Lakes — but this kind of rigorous formalism finds its fascination in the unexpected. The first two journeys (an older man and a boy, and a woman carrying a basket of colourfully decorated cloth) have no talking in them, so we can observe the view outside more carefully. Thereafter we get increasingly chatty travellers, including an older couple (reprised at the end), a trio of elderly women and of young metalheads, another single woman, a woman and her elderly mother, a pair of American tourists, and a pair of musicians who strum away on their sarangis. You find yourself becoming attentive to details, like surprise animal appearances, and the way the older women enthusiastically eat icecreams, not to mention the throwaway references to the importance of the temple, and the way people used to reach it, along with observations about road-building and housing in the area. This kind of project can be initially uncomfortable, but it’s not long until you get into the film’s pace — and when you do, there’s plenty to like here.
Directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez; Cinematographer Velez; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (Studio), London, Saturday 3 January 2015.