Situated in the Gorkha district of Nepal, the mountaintop Manakamana (“mana” means heart, and “kamana” wish) temple is the sacred place of the Hindu Goddess Bhagwati. Since the 17th century, it’s believed that Bhagwati grants the wishes of all those who make the pilgrimage to her shrine to worship her (some even sacrifice goats or pigeons). For most of four centuries, the only way of accessing Manakamana was by way of a three-hour uphill trek. Pilgrims still travel by foot, but most journey today to the shrine by cable car, and this trip gives the form to, and is the subject of, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’ superb documentary, something far more complex than it appears to be. (For example, most of the film’s subjects have actually been cast.)
Each of the 11 shots in this rhythmic work takes the length of the 2.8 kilometer trip up or down—lasting a little over nine minutes—beginning in darkness and then revealing the variegated passengers with whom we will spend the next stretch of the journey. Spray and Velez parcel out information piece by piece, assembling an arresting portrait of a place and its people. Shot on glorious Super 16mm celluloid, Spray and Velez’s spellbinding film is a product of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (which last year brought us Leviathan): it’s structuralist anthropology, a carefully assembled picture of the cultural make-up of those who visit the shrine, both natives and tourists, and a not-so-veiled encapsulation of modernization and change in a far corner of the world.
"The pickings were particularly excellent in Wavelengths, the most radical of [TIFF]’s 12 programs. Among the highlights was “Manakamana,” an experimental ethnographic film from Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez. Austere and complex, this 117-minute knockout consists of a series of fixed shots inside cable cars carrying visitors (including animals slated for sacrifice) to and from the Manakamana temple in Nepal. With a lush, mountainous valley spread out behind them, men, women, children and feathered and furred animals take a 10-or-so-minute ride that, trip by trip, opens a small window onto a world. Because the directors don’t presume they can tell you about a people in one film, this self-limiting approach becomes a strength." — Manhola Dargis, New York Times