Produced under the auspices of Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Manakamana follows a set of assorted Nepalese pilgrims and sightseers—couples, kids, a metal band, a tribe of goats—on their journeys via cable car to and from the titular mountaintop temple. Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez shoot each of the film’s 11 shots—six up, five down—in rigorous, frontally composed long-takes, the length of each 11-minute ride corresponding roughly with the length of a reel of 16mm film. Some sequences unfold entirely without dialogue; others are filled with chit-chat, reminiscences, or even music. But all are packed with the intricacies of gesture, miniature tragedy and comedy, alternatively broad and delicate. Ethnographic, possibly; sensory, for sure.
On the occasion of Cinema Guild’s theatrical release of the film, I sat down with Velez and Spray to talk about structuralism and narrative in documentary, Nepalese improprieties, and the sense of time.
Leo Goldsmith (Rail): You’ve both been making work for a number of years now, but Manakamana seems quite distinctive from your earlier films. Can you talk about how this film fits in with, or departs from your previous work?
Pacho Velez: My last film, Bastards of Utopia, came out in 2010, but I shot it in 2003, and I really hadn’t really made a film, or hadn’t been in serious production on a documentary in eight years. And so, there had been a lot of time to rethink what I was interested in, what I wanted to do. During that time, I was involved in creative ventures, but no big film undertaking exactly. I was really not interested in making films after that. And it was strange because I was in grad school for filmmaking, but CalArts is very open, so I was actually directing theater mostly. I had to make a short documentary in order to graduate, but I really didn’t think I was ever going to make another documentary. And in 2010, I got invited to come back to Harvard to teach 16mm documentary filmmaking. That was really a fluke: there were too many people on sabbatical that year, and I knew the curriculum, and the first three people they asked said “no.” [Laughter.] So I took the job at Harvard, and going back there to work with film, I was reminded of what’s exciting about cinema, what’s exciting particularly about film, the physical process of the thing, actually editing it, looking at it, working with students, the slowness of it, relative to video. You shoot it, and you don’t see what you shot for three days, five days, however long it takes to go to the lab and come back. And then it’s even longer until you see it synced up with the sound, and then you only have one audio track so you’re not doing all this fancy work during the edit. You actually don’t know what the film actually looks like until you’ve made the film, at the end.
Rail: It sounds like it was important for you to get back to a more basic process.
Velez: And also a rejection of a lot of the observational video political approach that I had been taking before: following characters around for a year, doing all those sorts of activities I very much knew I did not want to do. And so it’s stripping down to what little a film can be made of. You know, no camera movements, relatively little editing. I think going into Manakamana, I thought it was going to be a quick process. We thought, “We’ll have the film back in six weeks and get the shots together.” We definitely thought it would be out in summer 2012.
Rail: What about you, Stephanie? In your previous films, you were working with some of the same people we see in Manakamana. Did you see this as trying something different, or as an extension of your previous work?
Spray: Before we started Manakamana, I was in a similar position to Pacho in terms of frustration with trying to fit people’s lives into narratives. I was following people, but following people around in many different ways prior to shooting, too. I first went to Nepal in 1999, and I did all kinds of things: studied music, language. I wasn’t an anthropologist, really—I was studying religion at the time. Really, I was just looking for ways to do weird things in Nepal. [Laughs.] But part of that is grant-writing and writing about something in an academic manner, which I found really dissatisfying—having to fit my experiences and other people’s experiences and lives into these boxes. Filmmaking seemed like a creative, interactive process, a way in which you didn’t have to describe, but you could express something about an experience, and it would also have a trace of that initial contact.
In terms of the same people, yes, you see the musicians from my film Kāle and Kāle (2007), Monsoon-Reflections (2008), and As Long As There’s Breath (2009). But each piece was pushing more and more towards something more minimal, I think. I love looking at people, and I think I had seen James Benning’s 13 Lakes, and that was an extremely influential film for me. And then of course Sharon Lockhart: especially Pine Flat, which is a series of single shots of kids, but more performative. And Benning is credited as the editor on most of her films: he chooses the in and the out. And I learned a lot from that: editing doesn’t have to be chop, chop, chop; it can come more from the process of shooting.
Rail: It’s funny that you mentioned not wanting to put people’s experiences into boxes, which in a way is precisely what you do—containing these experiences and gestures in a very precise framing, a structure.
Spray: Yes, and the literal box of the cable car creates an actual space where they, like us, are looking out the window. And that was the productive: something about that space parallels our viewing space. I think that’s something we exploit in the film.
Rail: It creates a kind of a shared space.
Spray: And it has a sci-fi quality.
Rail: A sci-fi quality?
Spray: Oh, yeah. We were talking about that from the very beginning. It’s quite surreal.
Rail: What do you think of the relationship between these structuralist avant-garde tropes and ethnography, either through this film or maybe through some other Sensory Ethnography films? Often, people seem to want to see this structuralism as an attempt for objectivity or impartiality, but I think that maybe it’s a way for you to bypass some of these expectations.
Spray: Oh god, yes. Because of the structure, you don’t have to deal with those expectations. There’s the beauty of that moment, and I don’t think that having more context adds anything to the film. It might satisfy anthropologists, but—
Velez: In some ways, it’s a very new and exciting thing, but also a kind of old thing. I think back to Robert Gardner’s TV show Screening Room in the ’70s where he’s interviewing Hollis Frampton and all these different titans of experimental cinema, and they’re having a very fruitful dialogue about what makes an image, what kind of information an image can convey. And that back and forth was there at the start of the tradition of ethnographic film.
Spray: And this idea of a back-and-forth implies that they are somehow separate, but I think it’s only later that we come to understand these things. There’s this constant question that’s sometimes asked: “Is this an ethnographic film? Is this a fiction film?” But I feel like those are categories that aren’t really helpful to us. We were thinking about these histories as we made Manakamana, but they didn’t guide decisions necessarily.
But I would say, because I’m currently a teaching fellow at the Sensory Ethnography Lab, that a lot of the students are really frustrated because they want to know what Sensory Ethnography is. Especially a number of students who come from an art background who will soon have M.F.A.s—they really get annoyed, and talk about the anthropologists versus themselves, as artists. There’s this tension, and they’re constantly looking for an answer or a definition. Every time a film is shown, they say, “Well, you’re showing this in Sensory Ethnography, so it clearly fits within the definition.” But there is no definition. All the films are just in a constellation which you’re trying to find your way through. We can think of these films that are ethnographic, but we don’t have to think of them as a separate category. Of course, there’s the danger of saying that everything is ethnographic. But then “ethnographic” is such a weird word, because it’s more of a method than a thing.
Rail: But certainly your work is quite distinct from, say, Gardner’s films. I mean, you shot Manakamana with the same camera on which he shot Forest of Bliss (1986), but as I was rewatching it recently, I was thinking, “This is a very different film.” It’s not like you went off to make Forest of Bliss: Nepal Edition.
Spray: For me he’s been influential at least aesthetically, in terms of my own output with the handheld work. He’s got this kind of athletic way of shooting—he’s so tall, he towered over his subjects. There are many shots in his films in which he’s not looking through the camera, and these sorts of shots, they are magnificent, and I’ve often thought about them when I shoot.
Velez: I think it’s also very much a willingness to be impure in his works, or at least a little bit messy. His soundtracks are heavily constructed. Not that we heavily constructed our soundtracks, but that gives you license to experiment, to try this and that, to be a little messy, to not feel like there’s some stamp of approval that you need on your film.
Rail: Can you talk about 16mm a little bit? There seems to be a lot of reasons to shoot a film like Manakamana in 16mm and not digitally. But was there a particular moment when you decided?
Spray: Well, we were talking about the length of the ride, and Pacho realized that it was roughly correlate to the amount of time that you have in a roll of 16mm film. And then it parallels our thinking about the definite technologies of the cable car against this antiquated technology of film.
Velez: I also had a strong impulse to make a film while I still could.
Rail: And throughout the film you are constantly reminded of these shifts in technologies, both of travel and of image-making.
Velez: Of course, the blonde woman has a Polaroid camera—so she’s shooting on analog film—whereas the rockers all have their digital cameras out and are shooting, so there’s this way that the Nepalis have embraced the brand new digital future, and the Westerners are obsessed with this old technology. [Laughs.]
Rail: And the 16mm, in turn, determined the length and structure of the film as a whole. Selecting from these shots, and then finding a way to organize them—I mean, beyond the going up and the coming down—that must have taken a long time.
Spray: I think we were interested in the mood—I don’t quite know how to describe it. Some of it is obvious: something about a texture and how people interact, and that’s harder to pin down. For example, the couple that you see twice: there’s something very melancholic about their interaction, but I don’t know if it’s this stress that comes across, but also their faces. I always think of “American Gothic” when I see that couple for some reason.
But it was really difficult because our shots are so long, so every time we would change the order it would dramatically alter the experience of the film. And then at one point we had the four-hour cut—
Velez: And Lucien [Castaing-Taylor] was like, “Why would you cut any of it?” [Laughs.] But there’s also an internal rhythm, which, to me, comes from theater. There’s an idea that inside of a theater scene there needs to be a change in the emotional balance. If scenes don’t have shifts—emotional shifts, shifts in energy level, these sorts of peaks and valleys inside of them—they don’t feel alive. And so, for instance, the shot with the couple with the chicken, the third shot: it starts quietly, and there’s no dialogue in the first three-and-a-half minutes, and the audience is like, “Holy shit, we’re going to be watching another totally silent shot.” And then suddenly they start talking. And there’s the line about their ears popping, which I think is the funniest line in the movie.
Rail: And, for me as a viewer, that kind of self-awareness—awareness of duration—is what’s so distinctive about the experience of the film.
Spray: And I think that’s part of what makes a lot of people uncomfortable watching the film. Because for a lot films, the point of going to the cinema is to forget yourself, to be swept away by a narrative, to be swept away by the music, that instructs you how you’re supposed to feel, ultimately, about the scenes—that’s what’s important.
Rail: Did you ever consider making yourselves more present in the film itself? There are only very minute interactions between you and your subjects in the film.
Velez: We thought at some point that there was a good chance that we would hear Stephanie’s voice or my voice from off-camera. And we actually did shoot a ride in which that happens in a pretty explicit way. We had the thought that acknowledging how the thing works in some ways could be more honest, and we showed this to people, and they were like, “Well, this is an expected gesture.” And it sort of flattened the film. But the acknowledgement of our presence is there in the smile. And what actually happened there was that she bumped Stephanie’s leg with her foot, and that’s a sort of impolite thing to do.
Spray: Well, it’s impure: you’d never ever touch anyone’s foot. For an untouchable to do that to, say, a Brahman, would be extremely impolite. She’s so accustomed to this that she would have apologized. But the thing is, she’s also worked with me for many years, so she’s accustomed to a different way of being in front of a camera, thank god. So this beautiful smile comes out: there’s this tension, but she’s also in on the whole set-up, and that’s one of the most beautiful moments in the film for me. This kind of “Oh, I’m here for your film” smile.
LEO GOLDSMITH is a writer, curator, and teacher based between Brooklyn and Amsterdam. He is the former film editor of the Brooklyn Rail.