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Directors: Stephanie Spray and Pacho VelezManakamana DVD cover

Running Time: 118 mins

Certificate: E

Special Features: Deleted Scenes, Trailers

At the end of gangster film THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY, there’s a famous sequence where Bob Hoskins is captured in a close-up static shot as he sits in the back of a car. The character awaits a grisly fate at the hands of the IRA and over the course of a few minutes we see nothing but his expectant face. When Hoskins asked the director what he should be thinking, John Mackenzie suggested he try working out what was going on in the plot. An unusual way to begin this review perhaps but in my view pertinent, for documentary MANAKAMANA adopts a similar approach to a completely different subject. The piece is composed of a series of locked-off shots depicting ten minute cable car trips over the Nepalese mountains by pilgrims on their way to the sacred Hindu temple of the title.

My initial reaction to this was blind panic.  So accustomed to quick cutting and something blowing up at regular intervals, I became alarmed at the prospect of watching an immobile 16mm camera record the largely wordless presences of the site’s visitors. It was like I was being made to sit and contemplate, in much the same way these travellers do as they go to and from this place of worship. Then it dawned on me, this might well be the idea behind the film.

As my feelings of awkwardness died down, I began to pay attention to the different people who occupied the car, punctuated by a largely black screen as the dark of the station is used as a seamless transition between each “scene”. You are then pitched out into the glaring light of high above, with the latest subject intriguingly revealed. These vignettes begin with an old man and a young boy, presumably intended to represent the theme of old and new –  the car system was introduced in the late Nineties, replacing the traditional method of an arduous hike through the hills.

In this sense MANAKAMANA is most effective, packaging the concept of pilgrimage and reflection in the decidedly twenty-first century fashion of bite-sized chunks. If you find the silences (which are frequent) too oppressive the journey ends soon enough with the prospect of fresh faces. These range from a trio of young, long-haired musicians, who spend the whole time fiddling with their cameras, to what I presume is a mother-daughter combo who get into a serious mess thanks to some ice cream. Animals pop up – a kitten, a chicken, and on one ride a group of tethered goats with barely a trace of their owners in sight.

What you make of the production depends entirely on your view of the format. For me, this grew more interesting as time went along, and the pace is surprisingly quick in places, but at a self-indulgent two hours my curiosity soon flagged. There simply aren’t enough moments of insight as many of the pilgrims appear intimidated by the camera. Personally I wanted more background to the area and the longer method of getting to the temple that the cable car replaced. That gets relayed occasionally by elders but only in passing. Frustratingly the scenery is only viewed over shoulders in fuzzy greens and browns. Would it have killed directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez to have two cameras so we could cut between faces and features?

Where MANAKAMANA triumphs is in its use of outdated 16mm, showing that in this age of HD the old ways can be the best. The picture quality is pretty decent, and it’s an amusing detail that two American tourists talk in the car about film stock like it’s some exotic material from long ago. For some reason on the odd occasion when the reel runs out Spray and Velez opt to leave this in, so suddenly the screen goes black and you just hear the soundtrack. This, together with several minutes of black screen, metallic squeaking and animal noises during another part was amateurish to me, however intentional.

I like to think I know what was being aimed for here and in some ways the endeavour is successful. But in the end the project falls more on the side of an experiment than anything fully-fledged. A fundamental lack of content makes this an interesting failure.

[usr=2]  MANAKAMANA is out now on DVD and Blu-ray from Dogwoof.