If you’re looking for a very zen film, then I believe that you cannot find many films that are as zen as Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’ Manakamana (2013). Slow Cinema has often been considered in the context of “watching paint dry”, and I may remember this wrong, but some critics did mention this explicitly after a screening of one of Tsai Ming-liang’s films. I think it was Walker. In any case, if Tsai’s film was about watching paint dry, Manakamana is about watching ice cream running down an elderly woman’s hand for ten minutes towards the end of the film.
For inattentive viewers, or those who just go with the flow of traveling to and from the Manakamana temple with pilgrims, the film may appear to be shot in one very long take, similar to that of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark. There are cuts, of course, but the entire structure of the film is so smooth that you’re fully immersed in your own journey with people from different backgrounds, both cultural and geographical. The set-up is as simple as it can be: a camera, a cable car, pilgrims. This simple recipe leads to a remarkably peaceful and interesting cinematic experience that is unlike any other.
The film’s beginning is based entirely on visuals. If you were to close your eyes and only followed the sound, you would be on a fascinating journey into the wheres and whats. Only after about twenty minutes or so do we hear the first spoken words; a clever strategy by the directors. It allows the viewer to contemplate the natural scenery in the background without many distractions. Once we have spent time with nature, we shift our focus to the pilgrims; their dialogues, their silences, their postures.
Manakamana is an intimate portrait of many different people. It is a slow portrait. But the use of long-takes which tends to point to slow time is misleading here. In effect, you could see every long-take as a form of speed dating, which, yes, sounds opposing to the entire concept of Slow Cinema. Yet, you only have a certain amount of time with the pilgrims. The position of the camera makes us believe that we’re making the journey with them. We study their faces, their body language. We listen to their conversations. We get to know them precisely because of the medium-shot static camera. But we only have one take. Once the characters start to become familiar, they arrive at their destination and leave the cable car and we go on a journey with someone else. We’re literally running in circles, up and down, to and from the temple.
Throughout the film there is an admiration of technical progress and modernity apparent: “When I think of the old days, it now seems better.” Local pilgrims remark on the building of houses and roads, and on how long it used to take to go to the temple. Before the cable car was built, they had to walk to the temple, often for three consecutive days. This is a rather interesting aspect, because here modernity is shown as a good thing. I suppose it has something to do with the geographical setting of the film. It is not so much that Slow Cinema rejects modernity or progress. But the films are seen in the light of a rejection of speed, which is exactly what modernity is now known for. Not all slow-film directors oppose cinematic speed deliberately and consciously. But the bulk of the films is regarded as anti-speed, that means anti-modernity. So, where do we position Manakamana?
It’s an observation of the advantages of modernity, in fact. It is not only a portrait of pilgrims on their journey to the Manakamana temple. The film does tell a story after all, and even though the discussion on modernity may not be as foregrounded as I make it here, it is nevertheless there. It’s a really interesting study, actually. Nepalese pilgrims conversing about progress and an American woman taking photographs with her old camera, which still uses analogue film. You have a forward and a backward movement, all in one film, which makes Manakamana a very dynamic piece, not only because we’re constantly on the move.
At first sight, there isn’t much happening in the film. But there are undercurrents, which are well worth looking into more closely.