Manakamana: Two Hours in a Gondola in Nepal. Plus Goats


Runs Fri., June 20–Thurs., June 26 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 118 minutes.

Placing the camera inside a moving gondola, running up and down the hill to a Nepalese monastery, sounds like a purely formal exercise. Each trip takes about eight and a half minutes; and directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez—who were also crammed into each small gondola car—divide their movie into two halves: uphill journeys and down. It sounds terribly boring, like some kind of a process doc that simply illustrates the world without illuminating it. And yet the film takes on a kind of fascination for its anthropological aspect. Each car carries a little group of strangers (to us), two or three people related in some way: an old married couple, peasants, making a pilgrimage; three more affluent metal-loving teens, evidently from the city, with cell phones and digital cameras to do selfies; a pair of hired musicians who tune their instruments and rehearse; even two Western tourists with SIGG water bottles and Moleskine notebooks.

Each of the 11 continuous takes is edited together in the whirring blackness of the gondola stations at the top and bottom of the hill. Each vignette is a bit like staring through a one-way mirror at these passengers. (Though again, they’re quite aware the camera is running, and were “cast” for the doc as in any Hollywood feature, as the directors admit.) Our boredom is in a sense the passengers’ boredom. Some have never been on an aerial tram, and they seem to be focusing attention on the sky. (“Don’t look down. Don’t look down . . . ”) Others tell stories, eat ice-cream bars, or tend to their offerings to the goddess Manakamana. (Spoiler: A rooster, carried by the only travelers we’ll see twice, does not make the return journey.)

Would this movie work if, say, filmed inside an elevator at Pacific Place? The claustrophobic intimacy and self-consciousness might not translate; and I’ve never seen any goats at the mall. Spray and Velez come to their subject from a highbrow Harvard/CalArts position; there’s the imposed, academic sense of these people being framed for our scrutiny, like microbes on a slide. As the cable car continues its endless loop, we grow accustomed to the regular rhythm of each journey, like the Hindu cycles of life. The older pilgrims talk of days before roads, bridges, and trams. The younger visitors will post their photos to Facebook and Instagram. And the goats forage on the hillside below, indifferent to our gaze.

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