This is a strange film indeed, a festival hit that is likely to bore the pants off some and fascinate others.
It is set within the cable car system in Chitwan, Nepal, which rises 1,302m towards the site of a temple to Hindu goddess Bhagavati. Tourists, worshippers and locals go up and down the Manakamana cable car and these people are the film’s focus, not the stunning views.
We know nothing about them and they talk very little. We don’t even know whether they are aware of being filmed. They are just there — an old married couple, a man with a chicken in his lap, an American woman with one of the locals, two musicians who give us a song on the way up and down, etc. In one scene, there are just four goats tethered together, looking either nervous or curious, or possibly both.
Film-makers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez fashion the documentary in 11 extended takes of 10 minutes each (equivalent to a roll of 16mm film) and you are clearly intended to ask yourselves questions rather than receive any answers.
The film was made for the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab and follows in the footsteps of anthropological documentaries such as 2012’s Leviathan, about deep-sea fishing, and 2009’s Sweetgrass, about a Montana sheep run. Both those films were extraordinary but more of a spectacle than Manakamana, which is like a road movie that defies all expectations except perhaps those of a hypnotist.
One of the travellers says that it once took three days to walk up to the temple whereas now it takes 10 minutes. Some might comment that watching this two-hour film seems like three days.
But Manakamana has received so much high praise that any chorus of dissent is drowned out by determined applause.
Manakamana is showing in rep at the BFI, at Hackney Picturehouse, and ICA.