Cultural opponents of fast food started a successful slow food movement several years back, and if there is ever a parallel slow documentary trend, the fascinating "Manakamana" could be classified as Exhibit A.
Observational with a vengeance, more an art piece than a conventional motion picture, "Manakamana" is simple in conception, but the reactions it evokes in viewers will be complex and multifaceted.
It all starts with the film's namesake, a 17th century temple in Nepal dedicated to a Hindu goddess who makes wishes come true. It took hours to walk through lush jungles to make a visit to this temple back in the day, but now a spiffy aerial cable-car system whisks pilgrims up to the temple in 10 to 11 minutes flat. Which is where co-directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez come in.
Since the length of time it takes to make the trip turns out to be how long you can shoot with a roll of 16mm film, Spray and Velez anchored a tripod and a 16mm camera to the floor of one of the cable cars and simply filmed people who were going up for a visit as well as folks who were headed back down.
Spray, who has lived and worked in Nepal since 1999, started with individuals she already knew and had previously filmed, which in part accounts for how unself-conscious most people are in front of the fixed-position camera, people who seem for all the world not to even notice that they are being photographed.
Consisting almost entirely of 11 of these 10-minute-plus portraits (some time is taken up when the cable car enters a dark terminus building where departing passengers exit and new ones enter), "Manakamana" will hold our interest for several reasons.
For one thing, like a cab driver compelled by the panoply of experience, it is hard not to be intrigued by the tiny slices of multiple lives, both human and animal (one cable trip conveys nothing but a quartet of goats) that unfold before us with huge swaths of greenery as the backdrop. Among the most interesting passenger groups are:
— a trio of elderly women who are serious about the goddess they are visiting, chanting, "We take refuge in you, we worship your power";
— a trio of long-haired male hipsters, likely members of the same rock band, who are more interested in taking selfies and complaining about a lack of air-conditioning in the cars;
— two traditional musicians who gossip a bit and then play an involving duet on the sarangi, a traditional stringed instrument;
— two women amusing themselves as they cope with the clearly unfamiliar experience of eating ice cream on a stick. "We're like children," one of them says between bites, "still learning how to eat."
Yet even cable car passengers who do nothing but look out the window, saying not so much as a word, hold our interest in a way that brings to mind Andy Warhol's celebrated 1963 "Sleep," which featured the artist's friend John Giorno sleeping for 5 hours, 20 minutes.
As much as anything, "Manakamana" points out the voyeurism inherent in all moviegoing, underlining how much we can be absorbed by what other people are doing, even if they are not doing very much at all.
We construct scenarios for these cable-car voyagers in our heads, wonder what the random expressions that cross their faces really mean. A quiet, elusive film like "Manakamana" will not be to everyone's taste, but if you get on its wavelength, you will hate to turn away for fear of what you might miss.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills