An older man and a young boy in a baseball cap sit on the bench seat of a cable car as it climbs away from its station in a valley and skims over the lush green foothills of a mountain. The ride takes about eight and a half minutes. The man and boy look at each other. They look around. They don't speak. When the car reaches the top, new passengers get on and the ride starts over.
Manakamana emerged from Harvard University's Sensory Ethnography Lab, the organization behind 2009's Sweetgrass and 2012's much-celebrated Leviathan (a MFF 2013 favorite), and it follows a similarly rough aesthetic: no title cards, no voiceover, no explicit context, no interviews, and no narrative. Directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez simply train their cameras on the passengers of the cable car in unblinking takes that last the entire trip—the mountain is in Nepal, and there's a Hindu shrine at the top of it, you eventually glean. Sometimes the passengers chat. Sometimes they sit silently. Just when you have the pilgrims stereotyped as dour rural people wearing their Sunday best, a carload of young, long-haired Nepalese rockers spend their ride taking selfies. Two women (a mother and daughter?) gobble ice cream before it melts in the hot car. Two men play music. For one leg, the camera focuses on a load of goats. All the while, the slopes slide by the window (they become familiar over the course of two hours), and the whine and clank of the cable-car machinery keeps time.
Through its formal rigor, Manakamana forces you to look at these people and to wonder about them, to notice little things and file them away—their moods, the type of hats the men wear, clues to the relationships between them. It provides a top-quality exercise in people-watching, in addition to what reveals itself as an intensely meditative property, a mirror to the pilgrim experience at the top perhaps. Indeed, it brings to mind the Hindu belief in life lived over and over again in different guises until enlightenment is achieved. It is, in many ways, a more austere experience than the previous Sensory Ethnography Lab films (quiet and polite compared to Leviathan's disorienting onslaught) but also a more human one, and oddly rewarding.