TIFF 2013: ‘MANAKAMANA’ a transportive people-watching experience fertile with juxtaposition


Directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez
USA/Nepal, 2013

Hot on the heels of last year’s festival hit Leviathan, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab are rising from the depths to bring us to an entirely different world with Manakamana (stress on the “ka”), a first-person experience named for the Manakamana temple in the mountainous Gorkha district of Nepal. The duo invites us to become passengers on a cable car erected in 1998 that transports pilgrims to the temple so they may worship the Hindu goddess Bhagwati.

A 16mm camera – its unmistakable, hypnotic hums and ticks audible through the unfiltered sound bed – remains stationary on one cable car throughout, opposite travelers heading to and from the temple. Between rides of approximately 10 minutes a piece depending on the time of day, weather conditions, etc., we are shrouded in the stark shadow of the boarding stations, awaiting the emergence of the next passenger in to the sun’s light. At once, we are taken with gorgeous vistas over Gorkha, but there is more than meets the eye to this ultimate people-watching affair.

Our first several riders are noticeably quiet – often definitively stoic – as if the otherworldly beauty surrounding them is routine, and the sudden clangs overhead from the cable system’s suspension towers (a key reason to make Manakamana a theatrical viewing, if nothing else) are par for the course as opposed to unsettling. Not dissimilar to the alternately serene and startling atmosphere, perhaps most striking is the juxtaposition of a much older society accepting newer technology in to the common fold of their ways, as becomes verbally observed by several riders.


It fascinates to behold the varying experiences of different breeds unfolding before us, from the aforementioned silent worshipers to chatterboxes, Western tourists and even sacrificial goats. The behavioral and conversational differences and similarities exhibited provide a compelling cross-section of an unfamiliar world, not to mention psychology in general. Furthering the purely natural condition of the subject’s presentation, also included in the final cut are several takes ending in roll-outs – beauty from blemishes, or happy accidents.

With a crew of just themselves and a cable car operator, Spray and Velez have uncovered much more out of ostensibly less. Manakamana is an utterly unique and transportive experience that remains with the viewer long after the final ride, which arrives all too soon, has reached the station.

– Tom Stoup

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.

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