Several of the most adventurous and formally daring documentaries of the last few years can be attributed not just to the men and women who shot them, but to the Ivy League research facility that fronted the bill. Representatives of Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab have followed Montana sheepherders for several seasons (Sweetgrass), observed an endangered junkyard neighborhood of Queens (Foreign Parts), and gotten up close and personal with the daily catch of a Massachusetts fishing boat (Leviathan). The center’s latest project, Manakamana, transports audiences to the scenic jungles of Nepal, where folks flock to the eponymous Hindu temple. Situated on a mountain, the worship space once took three days to reach by foot, but a series of cable cars have reduced that travel time to about 10 minutes. Mounting a camera within one of the cars, filmmakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez offer 11 unbroken medium shots of the commuters—a father and son, three teenage metalheads, a pair of American students— as they move up or down the mountain, the breathtaking terrain framed behind them.
There’s probably something here about the way convenience has compromised the integrity of religious pilgrimages, condensing what should be a long trek to a sacred space into an afternoon visit to a tourist attraction. Really, though, the film’s focus is on neither the destination nor the journey, but on the individuals planting themselves in front of the lens. Much more structurally rigid than the Lab’s other experiments, Manakamana essentially amounts to two hours of people watching. Each shot is a multi-minute opportunity to study the face of a stranger—to read meaning or emotion in an unchanging expression, to invent backstories or search for hints of drama in the casual chitchat. Are those on the way to the temple expressing anticipation or anxiety about the impending experience? Are those coming back conveying enlightenment or the lack thereof? The presence of the camera creates its own context, transforming the movie into an examination of how people respond to being filmed: Some avert their eyes, their avoidance of the lens only underlining their awareness of it, while others seem to be subtly performing. The presence of the filmmakers—supposedly sitting on the other end of the cable car, though they remain off screen—makes pure observation impossible. Few people behave “naturally” with a camera in their face.
Manakamana was produced by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, the directors of Leviathan. Yet even those seduced by the aural and visual assault of the earlier film may find the new one a tough sit; unlike its bolder, aquatic-themed predecessor, this repetitive exercise in anthropology adopts a single, static perspective, demanding total submission to its methods. One too many times, perhaps, does that cable car begin its ascent or descent, to the point where each pass into the darkness at the top or bottom may feel like a challenge to the impatient. But walk out early and you risk missing a moment of sudden, disarming poignancy: a married couple plainly unable to disguise its discomfort; a lovely musical interlude; and, in what maybe should have been the coup de grâce, a zoological punchline. Humanity may be the chief subject of the Harvard lab’s studies, but as Sweetgrass, Leviathan, Manakamana, and a thousand Internet cat videos have demonstrated, nothing is as photogenic as the animal kingdom.