One of the films garnering a great deal of buzz at the Locarno International Film Festival is the extraordinary feature documentary Manakamana directed by American filmmakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez.
High above the jungle in Nepal, pilgrims go on an ancient journey, travelling by cable car to reach the Manakamana temple.
The filmmakers describe the temple, the sacred place of the Hindu Goddess Bagwait: Since the 17th century it is believed that Bhagwati grants the wishes of all those who make the pilgrimage to her shrine to worship her – some even sacrifice goats or pigeons. For almost 400 years their only access was a three-hour uphill trek.
Challenging traditional documentary narrative conventions, Spray and Velez chose to use dialogue sparingly (the first words are spoken about thirty minutes into the film); they avoid the use of voiceover or titles to explain the history of the Manakamna temple and the Goddess Bagwait. The characters do not look at the camera; they are not interviewed. These compelling and provocative decisions are most effective. The images tell the story.
Watching each of the character’s journey to and from the Manakamana temple in the 5’ x 5’ cable car, it is impossible not to project a backstory onto each character (if not one’s own backstory); imagining what their lives are like, getting glimpses of who they are. Manakamana is a meditative film, and as it unfolds, it becomes more dramatic as some characters begin to speak. But they speak sparingly. Focus remains on how characters react to their surroundings in the cable car — looking out the window or avoiding it, remarking on the hills, the corn fields, the Goddess.
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