Brief impression: “Manakamana”

July 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

Aside from the incomprehensible technical prowess it must require to craft some of his sculptures, the genius of Ron Mueck’s work – most of which depicts not mythical deities or surrealistic peculiarities but what one might call “average human beings in various states of vulnerability” – is that it renders the commonplace inexplicably captivating; no, hypnotic. It was only on viewing a Mueck sculpture that I realised, perhaps with a slight shudder of inward-directed horror and shame, how rarely I consider the physicality of my fellow humans with any degree of vested interest, with the slightest bit of genuine, unadulterated curiosity. Even those whom I consider beautiful, sexy or pleasing to behold only tend to register in my mind as a combination of features, broadly speaking: nice eyes, full lips, hourglass figure, ample bosom, a stately pair of legs; even in as intimate a situation as sharing a bed with such an individual, how often do my eyes scour every inch of their face in simple wonderment, as opposed to focusing on the moistness of lips or the shimmering of eyes? Of course, it is not often that one is offered the opportunity to visually explore the raw, physical humanity of another person, one whom they encounter walking down the street or sitting in a café or travelling on the train. But how often have I thought to myself “if only I could study the very pores on this individual’s face, only then would my curiosity be satisfied?” This is the magic of Mueck’s sculptures: opening one’s eyes to the endlessly fascinating bodyscape of the human creature, stirring up latent curiosity or curiosity which previously did not exist and, in doing so, dragging the beholder from their cocoon of self-interest and propelling them into a state of social and spiritual receptivity that may pave the way for greater empathy. Similarly, this is the magic of a film like ‘Manakamana.’

The Manakamana Cable Car runs between Cheres station in the Chitwan district of Nepal and Manakamana Temple located in the neighbouring district of Gorkha. Since 1998 the Austrian-imported cable car has transported locals, tourists and cargo over and across the surrounding valleys and mountain ranges, back and forth, from nine in the morning to five in the evening when the system shuts down for the day. The average trip from Cheres to Manakamana takes roughly ten minutes and for a touch under two hours Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab dare to subject viewers to eleven uncut, static shots depicting exactly eleven trips between the two stations. It is evident after a handful of these segments that the filmmakers probably shot a wealth of footage and that the final cut of the film is comprised of a considered selection of trips shot in different cable cars at different times as opposed to it being eleven consecutive journeys in one particular car. One of these segments actually takes place in a cargo vessel transporting a bunch of goats through the Nepalese sky, recalling – whether tongue-in-cheek or not – ‘Sweetgrass’, a film also produced by HSEL. Apart from the goats, the subjects are largely locals going about their daily business or on pilgrimage, though there are some English-speaking tourists and a trio of young, blackclad, long-haired Nepalese metalheads, for a touch of variety.

Interestingly, thirty-plus minutes into the film, long after I found myself subtly hoping and pleading for the film to offer up subjects other than locals quietly exchanging everyday banalities or sitting in utter silence for minutes on end, the metalheads appeared on screen. But by this point, ‘Manakamana’ had taught me how best to watch it, how best to appreciate what it had to offer, which was (and continues to be) the opportunity to be simply and selflessly fascinated. Rather than being a cute little bit of cinematic tourism that seeks to provide a box-ticking portrait of the cable car and the various types of passengers it services, ‘Manakamana’ is an anthropological exercise, albeit one which requires nothing more than patience, curiosity, but mostly a generosity of spirit of the kind that is rarely allowed to exist let alone thrive in a decidedly impatient and breakneck world. While the gently rocking landscape outside the cable cars is splendid in its natural beauty and soothing in its repetitiveness, and while there are endless moments of raw human behaviour in each segment that are both funny and sobering, it may very well be that ‘Manakamana’ is less about what is projected onto the screen and more about what it demands of the willing audience member, which is ultimately empathy in its purest form; the selfless desire to appreciate and perhaps understand the existence of another. Like Mueck’s sculptures, ‘Manakamana’ constructs a situation in which patrons are given the opportunity to do that which either time, social decorum or both prevent them from attempting or even considering.

Much as Ron Mueck’s sculptures were a sobering experience for me in highlighting, on my part, a disappointing lack of curiosity about things, ‘Manakamana’ challenged me to consider why it is that sitting quietly in the presence of a stranger can be so uncomfortable. I suspect it has to do with the fact that inquisitiveness of this kind – being selflessly interested in others and their plights – has become so darn unnatural. Perhaps it has always been. If so, bravo to ‘Manakamana’ and other such work that seek and strive to undo this state of affairs one film and one viewer at a time.

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