'Manakamana' takes viewers on a pilgrimage via cable car

Feb 27, 2014

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Fest.  Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes.

This weekend is the annual True/False Film Fest, bringing documentary films and filmmakers to Columbia from all over the world.

Some of these films focus on religion and spirituality. One of them is “Manakamana,” directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez.

The film is a journey to and from a Hindu temple on a mountain in Nepal. The entire film is set in one of the cable cars that takes Hindus and holiday-goers alike up and down the mountain.

I spoke to Spray and Velez via Skype and telephone the week before the festival. Spray won’t be able to make it to Columbia, but Velez is excited for his first True/False experience. 

Let’s talk a little about the backstory. Stephanie, you’d been living and working in Nepal for several years, and even done some pieces with people who appear in this film. Where did the spark for this film come from?

At Manakamana, the cable car and the temple are both very popular destinations for Hindus, and just for holiday-goers in Nepal. So I’d heard quite a bit about it, and I took two of the film subjects on a ride it, thinking that I would include this in another piece I was working on, but the cable car itself just screamed cinema. 

Pacho, when Stephanie spoke with you about this idea, what piqued your interest? 

I had for a while been looking for a good site to make a film that combined landscape and portraiture in equal measures, and for me, Manakamana was a very good site to make that kind of film.

Of all the temples in Nepal, why this one?

Spray: In Nepal, this is the only one that has a cable car. The Manakama cable car is the only one in all of the country.

You decided to make this documentary using 16mm film, rather than going digital – why?

Velez: We chose to make this film on 16mm because of the nice conceptual rhyme between the length of a film roll and the length of a ride on the cable car. Each one is a little under 11 minutes, and so we could perfectly film one ride with one roll of film. And so, the film had this very nice ratio at its heart, that one trip on the cable car, which is I think about 2400 meters, is equal to 400 feet of 16mm film, which is the length of a roll of film, which is then equal to about 10 ½ minutes, which is the length both of the roll of film and the ride on the cable car.

One of the interesting things is that we never actually see the temple – it’s all about the journey, not the destination. Tell me a little more about that.

Spray: The whole point of our film, like you said, is the journey, it’s less the destination, and then you can always ask yourself, well what is the destination? Is the destination really the temple atop the hill, or is the destination reaching the temple and then returning home to your life, and how that’s transformed you, so it depends how you define what the destination is.

Velez: We designed "Manakamana" to focus on the pilgrimage because that’s this thing that’s really changed. There’s this temple on a hilltop, and for hundreds of years, people have walked to that temple to pay their respects to the goddess Manakamana, who’s a Hindu goddess of good fortune. And then about 15 years ago a Nepali entrepreneur built this cable car up the mountain. And so what used to be a very bodily experience and intense physical hike up this mountain has turned into a 10-minute cable car ride. I think somehow part of the meaning of pilgrimage is the effort of the pilgrimage, and the process, is part of the payoff. And then if you ease the process, if you remove the process, it has some effect on the spiritual impact of the journey.

What do you hope the audience takes away from this film?

Spray: The people that you see on the screen are people. They are, for me, not film subjects. They are humans, in the world, that I’ve cultivated relationships with. So, what I hope is that there would be an engagement, that you would be able to break through this initial ­ this gap you see, that they’re somehow different, or exotic. And that something of their humanity would come through.

Velez: I hope that the audience watching “Manakamana” takes away a newfound interest in the lives of the people depicted. It’s a tricky thing to say, because I hope that there’s a sense of communion experience in the film, but also there’s a sense of separateness and apartness. There’s a way that the experience is also so familiar, but also so different than anything I have in my life. It’s hard to reduce it to one takeaway.