The senses of shifting

Delving into even the smallest details of Manakamana, Luciana guides us on the pilgrimage of this peculiar documentary, showing us the infinite attention and curiosity that are possible when we give ourselves to slower rhythms.

Prior to 1998, to reach the Manakamana temple, an important Hindu pilgrimage site in Nepal, it was necessary to walk through mountainous trails. By the end of that year, the Manakamana Cable Car, a service that takes approximately ten minutes to reach the top of the mountain where the temple is located, was inaugurated. During the summers of two consecutive years (2011-2012), Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez set up in different cabins of the cable car and filmed passengers on more than thirty rides with 16mm film. Manakamana is a documentary that lies at an intersection between ethnographic and structural cinema. Eleven complete rides are presented, with no frame changes. The passengers are seen frontally. Behind them, the back of their gray seats, and a wide cabin window that frames part of the landscape, always in motion.


Leaving the station, the cabin sways. One of its windows allows a view of a large river. The color of the water: light moss green. The two passengers in the cabin, a man and a boy, remain silent throughout their journey to the temple. A play of pronounced light and shadow is cast on the older man's coat. Suspended meters above the water, another cabin moves in the opposite direction, back to the starting point.

The Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) is a renowned audiovisual creation center that brings together people interested in various disciplines: natural sciences, social sciences, arts, literature. It was in a course linked to SEL that Stephanie Spray made her first film shot in Nepal, a short documentary entitled As Long As There's Breath (2010). Pacho Velez was a teacher's assistant for the course. Interested in music, religion and languages, she had begun visiting Nepal about a decade earlier, in 1999. Many of the protagonists in Manakamana are Nepali people already known to Spray, whom she invited to participate in the film.


Another cabin leaves the station. This time, instead of seeing the river, you can see the station itself. A brick and concrete building at the base of a forested mountain. This trip has only one passenger, who holds a hollowed-out, red plastic basket filled with flowers and fabrics. The passenger shifts her position in the seat, moving further toward the center of the cabin. Something happens. She looks down at the floor and then smiles and tries to suppress the smile.

The Manakamana cable car cabins have a maximum occupancy of six people, distributed in two seats. During the shoot, three of those spaces were occupied by Spray, Velez and their equipment: a camera, a tripod, a microphone and a sound recorder. Also a wooden base, built to anchor the tripod and ensure that the framing was consistent across shots. The presence of the filmmakers is mostly, but not entirely, unnoticeable. The camera and Velez, for example, can be seen in the reflection produced by a passenger's dark glasses. When the passenger on the second ride looks down and then smiles, it's because she kicked Spray's leg. In other circumstances she would have apologized but, in that instant, the commitment to play herself in the role of passenger was stronger than the impulse of manners.


With her back to the station's wooded mountain, there is a lady and, on her right side, her husband. She carries flowers in a translucent, pink plastic bag. Green handles indicate that the man is also carrying a bag, but its contents are unknown until a few minutes later: intermittently, a rooster peeks its crest, adding color to the lower left corner of the frame.

The first words of the film come during the third ride. Smiling, the lady comments on the plugging-unplugging of her ears (between the lower cable car station and the upper one there is a difference of a little more than a kilometer). Then, she recalls that the first time she made that pilgrimage, it took her three days to walk from her village to the temple. Through the windows of the cabins, it is sometimes possible to see the trail markers in the mountains, and imagine fragments of that hiking experience. The heat. The fatigue. The satisfaction of seeing, from the final summit, all the topography overcome.


Three elderly women enter the booth. Their clothing fills the space with red, green and cyan. The saturation of these colors diminishes as the cabin climbs, while the details on their faces fade. It looks like the day is cloudy, at least at the top. When the ride ends, their silhouettes disappear to the right of the frame. The temple is nearby.

When, in the documentary's synopsis, its protagonists are described as pilgrims, my thoughts skid a bit. I don't expect walking sticks or capes, but someone taking a bus to the cable car station escapes from the (somewhat outdated) images I associate with the term. But what defines pilgrimage? The distance separating the traveler from the shrine? The mode of transportation used? The level of suffering that, as an offering or a test of devotion, is endured during the journey? Whether thoughts along the way were, on average, more sacred than profane? What distinguishes pilgrimage from tourism? It can be tempting to give in to the nostalgic mirage that every past pilgrimage was, in more ways than one, purer than that of the present.


The cabin carries three young men, all with long hair and black shirts. The sun illuminates the face of a baby kitten, and the hand of the person holding it, while the boy in the middle takes a picture of it with a small digital camera. Each has his own camera. Through the windows, as they converse, they document the changing landscape.

In Manakamana , different cinematic currents converge, especially those interested in drawing attention to duration, rhythm and the idea of showing things "in real time". The Structural cinema, for example, with its exploration of both formal and material features of analog cinema. In certain structural films, the movement of the frame is a central element, either because the camera moves incessantly, as in Michael Snow's <---> 1969), or because the shots change in a remarkably slow way, as in Wavelength (1967), by the same director. By means of resources such as duration, minimalism or stillness, structural experiments sought, among other things, to concentrate or revitalize the exercise of the senses in cinema. These resources could also take us back to the very beginnings of cinema, when the static framing of the Lumière brothers called attention to other movements: that of workers walking, leaves on trees, a baby's mouth eating breakfast. 

But just as the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman combined structural elements with more personal or even intimate situations and interests, Spray and Velez take the structural to join it with other registers, such as ethnographic cinema, and its emphasis on showing in detail the behavior of people in different groups or spaces. Thus, in Manakamana, the rhythm is not created by pans or turns of the camera, nor by a montage with obvious cuts, but by the dynamism of the celluloid itself (its grains, its flickering), the actions of the people filmed and the fluctuating environment recorded from the booths. Also by more abstract sways, as Velez has commented: "The body and the spirit, the sacred and the profane - in our own quiet way, we wanted to capture some part of the ebb and flow between them". 


As they emerge from the darkness of the station, a bleating is heard. It is difficult to be sure how many goats are being transported to the temple. They are tied, with ropes, to the metal box that transports them. Are there six? It seems so. One of them stands more upright than the others. The camera records its neck and ears, waving in the wind.

The editing process for Manakamana, also undertaken by Spray and Velez, took more than a year. Of the 35 trips they recorded, they had to choose which ones to use, as well as their order in the sequence.  They also had to make other montage-related decisions: Would it be better to show the entire trips, or should they cut the shots? How about trying to create a sense of symmetry, with a number of outbound trips followed by the same number of return trips? The symmetry, while compatible with the rigorousness of a certain structural cinema, felt imposed. In the film, finally, eleven journeys are presented. Six journeys to the temple, one sound intermission, and five journeys back to the lower station. In the last of the upward journeys, those traveling to the temple are goats. Like the rooster that made its appearance in the third journey, the goats would be sacrificed in the temple as part of a religious ritual.


The repetitive buzz of an engine. Metallic screeching. Scattered chimes of different tones. Something close to silence. Distant bleatings. People talking. For a couple of minutes, the screen remains black. The ambient sound of a station is accompanied by the sound of bells.

The black screen is a recurring image during the documentary. This is how it begins and ends: the ambient sound of a cable car station is heard, while the screen remains in total darkness. In the intermission that divides the ascending and descending trips, the screen remains black for a little more than two minutes, during which a sound composition is heard that combines bells with the sounds of machines and people in motion. Given their cultural distance, the directors preferred not to produce images of the temple. That sound composition was their way of evoking the sacred. Perhaps in those minutes someone imagines what the temple might be like, based on accumulated experiences and information. Another person might recall moments of pilgrimage or tourism in sacred spaces. The absence of images, in the right context, can reanimate our interest.


The steep topography can be seen in detail through the window. A person walks. Two buffalo graze. Inside the cabin, an adult woman alone. A plastic bag rattles. A wooden object peeks out briefly. It is the roof of a miniature version of the temple. A souvenir.

The black screen also plays a starring role in the transition from one journey to another. Each trip was filmed on a roll of 16 mm film, whose 400 feet (120 meters) extension allowed the directors to record about eleven minutes. That is, the entirety of an average trip. Like Alfred Hitchcock in Rope (1948), Spray and Velez created the illusion of continuity in the editing. The darkness present after entering or before leaving the stations was harnessed to achieve imperceptible transitions between trips/cuts.


A young, blonde woman seems restless. She examines different objects, moves her head to look through the different windows of the cabin. To her left, a young girl, with a pink flower in her black hair, drinks water from her bottle. After minutes of silence, they talk about different subjects, in English with an American accent. Are they pilgrims or tourists? The blonde woman fans herself with an orange notebook.

On several rides, heat is a topic of conversation, or at least a noticeable presence. One young man wishes there was an air conditioning system in the cabin. Others fan themselves or show the effects of the heat on their bodies. Two women's popsicles are quickly melting. The small discomforts suffered in the cabins invite speculation about the experience of making this pilgrimage by foot. Perhaps there would be a constant thirst. Perhaps one would have to battle mosquitoes. Perhaps it would be necessary to concentrate to avoid stumbling. But perhaps, too, one could achieve the state of fulfillment that sometimes accompanies the act of walking.


Two ladies laugh at themselves. The situation is challenging: they want to eat a popsicle in a warm space, without getting ice cream all over their clothes. One of them has a small plastic bag that she uses to catch the melted ice cream drippings. The other one is going to have to rinse her clothes when they get to the station.

Part of the potential appeal of certain currents of cinema is the possibility of experiencing different modes of perception than usual. Certain uses of duration and immobility can highlight the basic potential for film to make us “watch time go by”. "With my films," said Akerman, "you are aware of every second passing through your body". Our attention is recalibrated through formal devices, and suddenly we notice details that in another setting we would ignore. Or we elevate the dramatic weight of the everyday, to the point that witnessing two ladies sitting around eating ice cream can be experienced as an action scene.


Two men, each with his sarangi. They talk for a while, with the misty mountains behind them. After tuning their instruments, they play music both for their immediate audience, the directors, as for the future one: us.

The filmmakers associate the shooting of the film with a constant tension between contingency and control. Ram Krishna, a Nepali villager, worked as a passenger coordinator. He would make sure that people were ready to get into the appropriate cabin. He would also give them certain directions: to try not to look too much into the camera, for example, or to sit near the center. The tenth ride features two musicians, who brought their instruments because Spray asked them to do so. She didn't know if they were going to play them or not. No documentary escapes staging.


The couple from the third ride reappears. They take the same spaces as the first time: the man to the left of the frame and the woman to the right. The rooster also accompanies them, but is no longer alive. Instead of its crest, its inert legs stick out, illuminated by a ray of sunlight.

In the 1960s, the construction of a road significantly reduced the time it took to make the pilgrimage from Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, to the Manakamana area near the temple. Without that road, the construction of the cable car would have been unfeasible. Manakamana is not an expository documentary, nor one of those with apparent pretensions of "exhausting" a theme or an argument. It does not explain anything about Nepal: neither its caste system, nor the significance of clothing, nor its various pilgrimage sites. Nor does it offer biographical information about the protagonists, beyond what they comment themselves. Its approach is broader. By fusing the mechanical turns of two devices (camera and cable car), Manakamana alludes to different experiences of displacement. And, allowing for disorientation, it suggests the inexhaustibility of a world in perpetual transformation. 

Manakamana is available online at DaFilms


With each issue of the column, we delve into the world of creative documentary through a piece relating to the volume's theme, opening us to the infinite possibilities of this genre that blurs the boundaries between reality, experience and imagination.

Stephanie Spray y Pacho Velez, interviewed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor y Véréna Paravel, producers of Manakamana and members of the Sensory Ethnography Lab.

Facts about the life and work of Michael Snow, Canadian audiovisual artist and one of the most prominent representatives of structural cinema, who passed away on January 5, 2023.


Luciana Gallegos

DaFilms, Cinema Guild
HarvardFilm Study Center

2023. Costa Rica

Published on July, 2023
Volume 7, Issue 8


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