TIFF Review: 'Manakamana'

There is a sequence in Jean-Luc Godard’s little-seen short British Sounds in which a factory assembly line is followed in a sustained tracking shot, without anything like change or action, for nearly ten minutes. The goal is simply enervation. If ten minutes of this seems unendurably tedious, Godard offers, imagine how bad it must be for the uncomplaining workers forced to stand here for 8 hours in succession every day. Stephanie Spray and Pancho Velez’s experimental documentary "Manakamana" proceeds from a similar conceptual proposition: confined to a cable car which ferries passengers across a Trisuli valley in Nepal, the film is structured as a series of 11 unbroken, ten minute takes, each spanning the length of a single voyage and therefore designed to convey the experience of repeatedly undertaking it.

The key difference in the approach here, of course, is that a cable car ride over the picturesque Nepalese mountains proves very far from tedious, which makes the film not so much an endurance test as a visceral work to bask in—indeed, despite its simplicity and running time the picture demands little in the way of patience. This much becomes clear immediately. Spray and Velez, hoping perhaps to inure us early to the film’s particular rhythm, open in the film in the company of its two most passive passengers, an elderly man and a young child who wait out the trip in absolute silence. As a consequence the journey itself becomes the focus, its aesthetic qualities emphasized by virtue of a natural pull: we become attuned to the thunderous sounds of the car passing steadily by posts, the ups and downs of the landscape’s enormous hills and valleys, and not only the length of the crossing but its precise feel and tenor.

At the end of each trek, as the cable car pulls slowly into the darkness of its redirection, we find an unexpected—and remarkably potent—sense of anticipation for what comes next. When, moments later, the car finally emerges into the light, we are greeted by new faces and, with them, new stories, new experiences. This feeling of surprise here functions, in essence, as an exceptional structural gimmick, effective every one of the eleven times it’s employed. At a certain point one gets the sense that literally anybody, or anything, could appear on the next car. Sometimes they do. The cut from the end of the fourth trip, in which the three members of an Asian metal band talk excitedly of wanting to make a music video here, to the beginning of the fifth, in which we suddenly in the presence of a small herd of goats, is one of the funniest and, frankly, most delightful moments I’ve seen in a film all year. It is amazing, given the modesty of its scope and means, how much "Manakamana" is able to achieve.

The necessary repetitiveness of the trips back and forth themselves have a tendency to make even the smallest shifts in expectation seem somehow shocking, even maybe revelatory—there’s something about the finality of the journey, following its straightforward cable and heading inevitably to the bottom or top, that makes the details specific to each trip more engrossing. It’s thus that each passenger becomes, in a way, a kind of temporary friend: they are planted firmly before us for ten minutes straight, sometimes talking and sometimes not, doing little but suggesting far more. At a certain point it becomes apparent that even the act of watching somebody just sit quietly and think proves mesmerizing in and of itself. Two ladies eating ice cream begins to look like silent comedy. A married couple’s return voyage feels wistful and nostalgic. Two young women spend half of their trip without a word between them, and when, minutes in, one turns to other and breaks into conversation as if they are best friends, the surprise is inexplicably delightful. The film’s capacity to charm and move seems somehow beyond its means.

SCORE: 8.1 / 10

Movie & TV Awards 2018