Manakamana takes viewers on a contemplative ride

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A documentary by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez. In Nepalese and English, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable.

Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Laboratory made a big splash and then drowned us in it with last year’s extremely immersive fishing doc Leviathan. In contrast, the latest from SEL isn’t going to induce any panic attacks in the viewer, though it might make you long for a Popsicle and a simpler life. Here, a single, fixed camera records 11 separate gondola journeys between the two stations that transport pilgrims, tourists, and even livestock above jungle terrain to the Nepalese temple of the title.

Some of the film’s local nonactors, cast by codirectors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez but in no way coached by them, carry offerings like flowers and a chicken. Two wizened ladies munch contemplatively on ice-cream bars. A western tourist speaks about her odd aversion to foothills. A trio of older women (one of them a dead ringer for British character actor Wilfrid Lawson!) speak in almost Beckettian circles about “how hard it is going up”. Two musicians tune and then play their stringed sarangis.

We’re in pure film territory here (shot on 16mm, incidentally), with each of us left to project our own narratives on these mysteriously mundane, 10-minute journeys. Sitting up here in Canada, we’re perhaps prone to pore over the array of exotic faces. Some of us might wonder if they’ve got an Earls up there at the top of the mountain. Others might ponder the incongruity of technology designed to make worship more convenient. Others still will admire the music of the machinery itself or the invisible editing that introduces each new set of passengers.

Nothing is certain except the journey and the landscape, and the only “character” with an arc, if you keep your eyes peeled, is that chicken. It’s not a happy one, but it has a certain profundity.

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A. MacInnis
"I can't go up. I'll go up."
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