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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.


An ethnographic film about modern pilgrimage in Nepal

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The saying goes that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Yet in the age of mechanisation, the single step is sometimes all that's needed. In the Himalayan foothills of rural Nepal, a temple once entailing an arduous three day walk is now only a cable car ride away. This modern pilgrimage is the subject of the film Manakamana.

What follows is a piece of experimental cinema funded by the anthropological hit-makers at the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab. Every day a random assortment of worshippers and tourists are whisked away to the temple of the namesake goddess.

We, as viewers, have the voyeuristic pleasure of watching the approximately ten-minute journey of an eclectic sample of passengers on their way to and from the hilltop temple. The concept is simple, and brilliantly executed.

The film unfolds as a series of vignettes. Each round of passengers are slowly revealed as the cable car leaves the terminal, a visual effect similar to a curtain being drawn back.

The journeys provide a fascinating slice of contemporary religious life, from a grandfather and grandson sitting in silence, two men jamming on their sarangis, three women recounting local tales, and even some sacrificial goats who clearly know their best angle.

However, with little context apart from what the passengers themselves incidentally provide, the film is less an educational resource and more a study of the limits of what ethnographic film as an artistic medium can achieve.

Let's begin with audience. The film doesn't so much break the fourth wall, but expands it out like a self-aware bubble enveloping everyone involved: the subjects, the camera crew and the viewer. It makes you wonder who is having the strangest experience.

Is it the woman on her way to give offerings at the temple, studiously avoiding the camera less than a foot away from her? Is it the invisible but audible two-man crew of film-makers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez sitting opposite? Or is it the viewer who feels the power of their gaze on a subject who knows they're being watched?

The awkward tension is palpable, and the atmosphere of the film shifts with each passenger's level of comfort with the camera – ranging from ten minutes of 'selfies', to ten minutes of silence.

My partner commented that it was like an anthropological re-make of Gogglebox, a popular British TV show where you watch people watching TV. Except instead of sapping your will to live, Manakamana stimulates discussion as your imagination tries to fill in the blanks.

Do those people know each other? Did they say that to the camera crew? Is that a chicken?

The unconventional format and structure also raises questions as to the 'reality' of ethnographic film. The ethnographic lens is selective, and the camera lens even more so.

Although the footage is presented as 'raw,' the film-makers' hand in crafting the film is heavier than it would first appear. The claustrophobic setting is carefully contrived, with the film-makers stating they deliberately cast the film. The vignettes, seamlessly stitched together, are not simply the first handful of people to ride the cable car that day.

Yet the film doesn't try to mute these aspects, and nor does it pretend that the subjects are acting as they 'naturally' would, i.e. if a camera wasn't perched less than a foot away. The journey in Manakamana is a simple one, but it speaks volumes.

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