True/False Film: Manakamana

Manakamana is the kind of experimental film whose description might make you cringe "...the feature begins with a single unbroken shot of an old man and a young child silently riding the car across the mountainside and arriving at their destination, where the Manakamana temple awaits. After a fleeting black screen and the whirring of cable engines, the car reemerges heading in the opposite direction with a new set of passengers. And so it continues, back and forth, around a dozen times over the course of the next two hours." (Indiewire). This sort of summary immediately conjures up images of Andy Warhol's endurance films, and the hours of near still shots prevalent in the student documentaries that I have been bludgeoned with during my film fest screening committee time...! But this movie isn't a torture device at all. In fact it is the quite the opposite. This film keeps you on the edge of your seat. It keeps you fully engaged even with the repetitive frame. It does what so many films try, and fail, to do with scenes of minimal movement or dogged retelling: bring attention to detail, add a layer of symbolic life, compress micro & macrocosms into a single frame, create a moment of contemplation, and shine a spotlight on the beauty & wonder we are swimming in- hopefully making an audience more attune to the seemingly simple sway of a breeze both on film and outside of the theater.

The characters of Manakamana (including a cart full of sacrificial goats, a trio of heavy metal spiritualists with a kitten-Aw alert!-, to two old women trying to negotiate ice cream bars in the enclosed heat of the car) float against a huge, slightly blurry, sprawling backdrop of the green, luscious mountains of Nepal allowing each character equal attention like the stage setting of a play. Focusing on this setting which is in between time & space the words, actions, and mise en scene become magnified, concentrating the audiences attention on the minute, and blatantly exposing the polarities inherent in the journey- an ancient ritual that used to take days to reach on foot now a simple lift away. The audience was so intensely enraptured that at one point a man and a women are sitting in the car slowly chatting when suddenly the peak of a chicken's scarlet red comb bounced ever so slightly into the edge of the frame, causing nearly the entire audience to release a hushed gasping shock of laughter literally at the mere top of a chicken's head. I have never, ever seen an audience so devotedly involved in a film, nor have I ever seen the kind of impeccable filmmaking that made them this way.

I tend not to research info about films before I see them because I don't want anything I learn to cloud my opinion so I had no idea that Lucien Castaing- Taylor (the director of the superb Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard that was also responsible for the alternative, image heavy, humanistic docs Leviathan and Sweetgrass) was involved. I also didn't know Manohla Dargis had it on her favorite films of 2013 list, or that the film got real theatrical distribution (I think I offended one of the co-directors by not knowing this but dude, it is kind of unbelievable that something so true, beautiful, and boundary pushing is seen as valuable enough to make it into the theater world!). After seeing Manakamana these accolades all make sense but none of these accomplishments can explain the ineffable wonder of this film, how these visionary filmmakers were able to construct dense, gorgeous imagery in the space of one single frame, how something so understated is actually an insanely complex portraiture that told more about a place and its people than any narrative film ever could.



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