Manakamana Is A Film That Redefines Ethnographic Filmmaking

Abhishek Srivastava - 37 weeks ago

Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, is one of its kind film. It’s a film that abounds in human interaction and gives us an opportunity to draw our own inferences, the outcome of which is extremely satisfying. The film was entirely shot inside a cable car meant to transport devotees to Manakamana temple, located atop a mountain in Nepal. Manakamana is an intimate portrait of individuals, couples and friends taking the cable ride. The idea for Manakamana came to Stephanie while she was busy shooting a film at Pokhara, Nepal.

(A still from Manakamana)

“I’d heard about the Manakamana cable car and the Manakamana temple, although I’d never been there myself. I invited Bindu Gayek and her son Kamal to ride with me on the cable car in September 2010, thinking that the confines of the small space would allow for a productive, albeit forced, intimacy between the film subjects and the camera - I’d never been on a cable car and wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Later, viewing the footage, I realized that the duration of the trip would allow for intimate exchanges to unfold,” she had mentioned in an earlier interview. Without any support, the Manakamana temple was built by a Nepali businessman after he was granted money by the royal family. The cable cars for the temple were imported from Austria and there were also occasions when Maoists activists tried to blow up the cable cars. 

Each of the 11 shots in the film is about nine minutes which also corresponds to the time taken by the cable car to complete the 2.8 km ride to and fro. To anyone it might come as a surprise that though the film might have just 11 shots but it took 18 months of editing to finish the film. More than two years were spent just putting the film right from its shoot to the premier of the film. The final edit also included two-minute space of black between the rides where the only sound one can hear is the sound of temple bells and the conversation of pilgrims to the temple. 

(Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez, directors of Manakamana, discuss the film on the red carpet during its Premiere at the Opening Weekend of the 51st New York Film Festival)

Manakamana is an exquisite film set in the mountains of Nepal and deals with pilgrims going up and down the mountain in a cable car. The film is devoid of action, story or narration but the events in the cable car are arresting enough to grab audiences’ attention for its entire duration. 

More than the actual shooting, the post production activity proved to be an ordeal for Stephanie and Pacho. Though the film was shot without taking any permission from the government of Nepal, the biggest challenge was to take the rolls of the film to a city that had proper lab facility to develop the rolls. Nepal had none. The most logical step was to bring the rolls to Mumbai and then to the US. But the Mumbai stint was the toughest for Stephanie and Pacho. The first 30 rolls of the film stayed in Mumbai for a long time as the authority demanded three letters from the makers just to ship the film to the US – letter from Indian Embassy, letter from Ministry of Information in Nepal and another letter from Film Development Board. With so many stumbling blocks, the makers finally decided to follow an unconventional route. They managed to ship the rolls to the US after they convinced someone at the US Embassy to carry them in a diplomatic pouch. 

The film saw its premier at the Locarno Film Festival and managed to win the Golden Leopard trophy, the top most award of the festival. The jury president Hartmut Bitomsky had hailed Manakamana as a film that ‘redefines ethnographic filmmaking’ and ‘pushes new space between anthropology, conceptual art and documentary practice’. During its subsequent run at films festival, it was lapped up by audiences at Toronto, Edinburgh, London and Buenos Aires Film Festival. 

Manakamana is a perfect film and at best can be described as an immersive experience with its perfect sequences and shots. 


Stephanie Spray / Pacho Velez / Chabbi Lal Gandharba / Anish Gandharba / Bindu Gayek / Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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