Manakamana

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Manakamana is a feature length, fly-on-the-wall study of the cable car journey to the Hindu Manakamana Temple in Nepal. We follow a diverse group of people as they make the journey in ten short minutes, a dramatic change from the arduous route otherwise taken on foot. A window into the lives of the people who visit this sacred place, rather than a probing documentary, this film is refreshingly simple and calm, and provides a compelling insight into a very different style of life.

Our journey begins alongside that of a man and young boy with a silent ascent to the temple, the two passengers looking out at the striking scenery below. We get the impression that this is not their first ride in the car, and their attitude is almost blasé, or perhaps only reflective. The camera seems to be fixed to the inside wall of the cable car, as if we are passengers sat opposite them, but, frustratingly, without any peripheral vision. Consequently, their view is much better than ours. This calm and sincere ascent is a fitting opening, setting the pace for the rest of the film.

Manakamana
When we reach the top, the car circles around to collect passengers waiting to be taken down, and we again find ourselves travelling through the air. This time we watch an old couple and their chicken, who talk sporadically but are otherwise content in their silence. This silence, broken only by birdsong and the sound of the cable car itself, seems particularly loud to a Western audience used to a faster pace of life, constant multimedia distractions and a self-perpetuating sense that silence is uncomfortable. The woman’s clothes – brightly coloured, simply patterned and very traditional – are particular striking and beautiful. She appears playful and happy, although there is poignant moment when she suggests that because she is deaf people think she is stupid. Interestingly, this elicits very little response from her companion.

The film continues in this pattern, and we next see three old women riding the cable car, who mention how the land has changed since they were young, and how it had previously been ‘hard to survive’. They thank their goddess for protecting them in the car and for making the journey possible. The women’s discussions and traditional dress strongly juxtapose the next group we meet, three boys in their late teens. Although they are also from Nepal, they appear to be tourists, and spend the journey taking photos of themselves and the scenery. This is the first time we see a digital camera and printed t-shirts; given what we have already seen, they almost don’t fit with the story. This is perhaps the most interesting part of the film. The boys, by far the most animated group, talk about modern life and have very different reference points from the travellers we have seen up until this point. Nevertheless – and I make this generalization warily – they still appear to be much more conscious of and interested in the natural world than many Western teenagers, for example writing songs about corn fields and trees around them.

The most surreal moment – or perhaps the most ordinary, given the context – is when a herd of goats, unaccompanied, enters the cable car and begins the descent. This is a reminder of the fact that many of the visitors to the temple are simply going about their everyday life; in fact, we follow relatively few tourists. Whether this is representative of the split of visitors to the temple in general is unclear, but it serves as some indication of the spirituality of the local community. Towards the end, in an almost comic scene, we follow two men who play wooden instruments as they travel, and speculate that the cable car was ‘built from a plane’ by ‘one man’.

In all, this appears to be a very natural, honest snapshot into the lives of a range of visitors to the Manakamana Temple. It shows us a different, much slower and more spiritual way of life, and is as much a journey through different mindsets, customs and points of reference as it is a physical excursion, which no doubt will resonate differently with different people.

Manakamana is out on DVD and VOD on Monday 9th from Dogwoof.

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