At the end of a nearly three-kilometer cable car journey in Nepal is the temple of the Goddess Bhagwati. The journey takes approximately ten minutes to complete. Each year, thousands of Hindus participate in the Manakamana Darshan, a pilgrimage to the temple to worship the Goddess and to have their wishes granted.
On the surface, a film documenting this expedition could be rather tedious. But Manakamana filmmakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez have crafted a fascinating, observational film that far exceeds expectations (shot on the same 16mm camera that Robert Gardner used for his remarkable Forest of Bliss). The resulting work now debuts on Fandor.
Spray and Velez spoke with Fandor co-founder Jonathan Marlow at the Ann Arbor Film Festival in late-March. This is the second of a two-part discussion.
[Editor’s note: Continued from “The Journey Up to the Manakamana Temple.”]
Jonathan Marlow: Perhaps we should backtrack a little bit. You had already been in Nepal. You had done work with many of the people we see in the film. At what point was it clear to you that this was something that you wanted to document, this journey to a religious site?
Stephanie Spray: I had been working in Nepal for fifteen years. I studied many different things there and I started making films in 2006. With this one community, I had done music, fieldwork and other things. I was there for two years. I do not really do fieldwork in a proper, formal sense. I sit around with people and hold a camera and record sound. Daily life. The things we also see in our film. I am interested in these micro‑emotions that you see on faces. How people interact. That is what I was getting at in the village. But I had been working the same village for so long that I knew ahead of time what was going to happen. I was constantly looking for interventions. Then I heard everyone talk about this cable car. I took two of the people that I work with on a trip. It was magical. It was fantastic. And it just screamed cinema. For a few months, I was occupied with this idea but I did not quite know how to execute it. I knew I wanted a full ride, just to have that time in that space with individuals. Then I met Pacho (though I was already interested in [James] Benning, etc.) but he was thinking, ‘What if this was on film, too?’ With this whole other notion about the formal element, it was just brilliant. Right there, we had the core. We didn’t quite know how… When we were there, we knew we wanted to shoot the full duration [of the journey; of the reel of film] but…
Pacho Velez: I was also interested in themes like mobility and transport. At CalArts, I had seen a film by one of the graduate students there, filmed on trains in Thailand. It had actually been filmed with a tripod. Some large parts of the film featured people sitting, looking out the window. Since the camera was on a tripod, you had these both portraits of people—very still, beautifully lit portraits—combined with these tracking shots of the Thai landscape. I had this really strong idea for finding spaces to combine portraiture and landscape within a single frame. It creates decision for the audience. It is sort of two films on top of each other. I had been very interested in finding a place to execute a project like that.
Marlow: It was always crucial that it had to be film?
Velez: We never really seriously thought about…
Spray: For Manakamana? From the very beginning. Then we knew that the Film Study Center had Robert Gardner’s camera. The camera that he shot Forest of Bliss was there. We were thinking about this history.
Marlow: What was the [filming] apparatus? Obviously, it is bolted to the car in some way…
Velez: We had a wooden board. And then we attached a…
Marlow: It is very effective.
Velez: Obviously, we were traveling by airplane with all of this stuff. We had to minimize as much as we could.
Marlow: The board is exactly the width of the car and rests on the…?
Spray: Not quite.
Velez: It was a plank and it rested on the seat. Then Stephanie would sit on one side and I would sit on the other.
Spray: Did we actually sit on the plank? I think we did.
Marlow: Stephanie, you were recording the audio at the same time?
Marlow: But the audio, to my ear, does not pick-up the sound of the camera (which normally would be an issue). Maybe it is the mix.
Spray: It does, in a few shots. In some theaters, you may not feel the spaciousness of the car. How was it in Rotterdam?
Marlow: It was great in Rotterdam. It was very immersive. I remember that there was one person who said to me, ‘I know what it is. I’m going to watch the beginning of it and I’ll get where it’s going.’ I said, ‘The duration is the point. You have to actually watch the whole thing.’ The ‘getting it’ is in the duration.
Spray: But people think they do get it. At one screening, for example, we showed the film and a number of people walked out early. But then they felt free to tell us exactly what they thought about our film (after having seen one or two shots) because they had ‘gotten it.’ And they were furious. They did not see the whole film so they had no idea. I guess that the price of admission is a little high (in terms of the time commitment) for some people…
Marlow: It is a different way of seeing. You mentioned yesterday in the Q&A that there is some discomfort, occasionally, in the other folks in the car across from you. You have instructed them lightly not to stare in the camera and just act naturally. You are not directing them.
Spray: Just enjoy the ride.
Marlow: There is clearly some awkwardness in certain shots. They are just not certain how to behave and that, on some level, makes the audience uncomfortable as well. They are not quite certain how to react. Not during the sequence with the goats, especially! At the very least, I hope that it might encourage some folks to visit the location where you made the documentary.
Spray: That was our hope. That it would become a Mecca for cinephiles. [Laughs.]
Marlow: We [Velez and Marlow] talked in Rotterdam about the process of editing. It was a long period of deciding, of the more-than-thirty shots, which would end-up in the final film (and in what order they would appear and how to break up the up‑and‑down (which some audiences fail to notice).
Spray: Interesting. That is key to the structure.
Marlow: Perhaps some people aren’t particularly observant. They’re not perceptive of what they are seeing.
Spray: That illusion was effective.
Marlow: It demonstrates how the sound-mix can trick viewers that they are experiencing continuity when there is none.
Spray: Right. Also, I wouldn’t say that they’re not perceptive. They might be focused on the human face or… maybe they don’t know the north from south. Noticing things just might not be their gift. [Laughs.]
Marlow: There is a tendency to simplify what is being seen to the point where it needs to conform to their preconceived expectations. There is a strong inclination to believe that what is shown is real time from the beginning of the film to the end, despite the fact that the weather is different and the travel directions are different. The illusion is so effective that anything that contradicts the illusion goes away. It should be evident that it is not the same day but still the force of what they’re experiencing convinces some viewers.
Spray: They have constructed some kind of narrative of how things are working.
Marlow: If a viewer believes that these two hours are continuous, then what about [spoiler alert] the goats? The car did not manifestly change and then go back to being a regular car.
Spray: It’s a magic mountain. [Laughs.]
Marlow: In a way! As much as I admire the film, the audience’s reaction to the film is equally part of the experience. I love the discomfort of an audience, too. They are just not certain how to react.
Velez: This relates back to the idea of people walking out. It relates to the time you need to give to a project. You have to get through the first twenty-five minutes of the film. I think that people are used to being condescended to in the theater, perhaps. They think that they are smarter than the films that they’re watching. The viewer just needs to trust in what we were doing and to absorb it a little bit.
Spray: I was just thinking about the audience again. You never know who the audience is, though. My family, from Alabama, watched the film. Obviously they’re my family. I wasn’t quite sure how they would deal with it. A woman said last night, ‘I was so intrigued by the details of what people were wearing.’ There is a tendency to want to be led by the hand, like Pacho was saying, where so much is given to you. I find that condescending. I find that exhausting. People respond to the mystery. You never know how people will respond.
Marlow: Anyone who finds fault with the film is generally finding a fault within themselves. If they’re not willing to engage with a work in the context in which it was made but feel it necessary that the work has to change to something that is more convenient to them, that is their fault. If you were in that car, placed randomly across from two other people, then this is the experience that you would have.
Spray: Except that you wouldn’t have the luxury to look this long and I think that’s what makes people uncomfortable.
Marlow: In reality, in the car, anyone would look.
Spray: Through sidelong glances. This is direct…
Marlow: I don’t know. I’d stare.
Spray: Would you? [Laughs.] But I think that it is the gaze.
Marlow: But you don’t have the advantage to engage with them. You don’t have the ability to speak to them. There would likely be a language barrier (except for one sequence), so you probably wouldn’t have the ability to…
Spray: That’s right. It is the direct gaze that makes people uncomfortable. But that is always inherent in any film, right?
Marlow: I would imagine so. It’s not as if the subjects are staring at you, although sometimes they would. They’re looking away, generally.
Velez: There is always this question: ‘We understand what you took from the subjects but what did the subjects or the characters get from you? What was the quid pro quo? What was the arrangement?’
Marlow: They were allowed to skip forward in the line!
Velez: Right. In some ways, that question rings much larger in many other documentaries than ours. For instance, I just saw Ne me quitte pas. Have you seen it?
Marlow: I haven’t seen it yet.
Velez: It is the one that won IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) and it is about these two Belgian co‑dependent drunks. They’re just drinking themselves to death on camera. You wonder, ‘Didn’t you feel obliged to intervene when this guy was going to black-out drunk? When he comes out of rehab and he’s finally sober and then he’s drinking a beer on camera, did the filmmaker maybe think that they should stop this?’ There’s such a commitment and such a deep relationship involved in a lot of kinds of filmmaking. If I’m going to make a film about you, Jonathan, I’m going to be in your life for six months. If your daughter gets sick, I’m going to want to be at the bedside with you. If you’re in a car accident, I’m going to want to be there. How do you feel, Jonathan? This is how documentaries are often conducted. In our film, obviously, there is a depth to these relationships. But in terms of the filming commitment, it is them in the car.
Spray: That is not exactly true. On my part, there is a deep commitment to the relationships that continued before and continue now. For me, the ten minutes that we have [in the film] is part of many years. The difference is the expectations that we have when we shoot. What we’re shooting isn’t someone blacking out. It is this experience that we’re sharing with them. We’re not giving you a chunk of their life and putting that into a narrative. What we’re doing is we’re working with the structure, inserting them into it and then there is a relationship of trust which enables a certain kind of unfolding relaxation.
Velez: They’ve come with us. Some of them have come with us for the day by this cable car. It is a fun activity.
Spray: We’re not demanding (for this film) that they bear their soul to us (though it comes out sometimes in glances, amazingly). It is much more subtle than blunt.
Marlow: Some of those journeys are humorous and some of them are very serious and some of them are spiritual. That’s a very difficult balance to get. Inevitably, because it’s a single-channel piece, the audience seemingly has it as, ‘this is where it begins and this is where it ends.’ Obviously, you have put a great deal of thought into the sequencing because it never feels random. It feels like there is a real effort to create a portrait of these people.
Spray: Yes and no. We started off thinking about how can we give the audience a sense of the trip first and then this constant unfolding. Pacho described it last night as the world expanding.
Velez: Or flowering. It is tricky to get that balance right. You could, in essence, have two hours of musicians going up and back and have each one play a song as you go and that would be a whole different film. We didn’t want that.
Spray: We had some Australian tourists. We liked that trip quite a bit. However, they’re kind of ‘surfer.’ We didn’t necessarily want to give you the only foreigner [as] this stereotypical tourist. We were attracted, I think, to these other riders because there was this mystery of whether they’re both foreign or not.
Marlow: The two girls, you mean?
Spray: Yes, the one with the American.
Marlow: Because of their disjointed exchange, you pick-up a little bit and it is still not entirely clear.
Velez: There was also a casting process for us. We had about two weeks when I was first there where we were meeting people at the village where Stephanie conducted her fieldwork and really figuring out how to pick people. We didn’t go into it with the idea that we were going to document Stephanie’s fieldwork.
Spray: Pacho comes from a theater background and thinks of it in terms of casting. I was thinking less about that and more about what could unfold in front of the camera and what kind of people would give us that. I never thought of it as casting, per se, but that is also because I was embedded there. I was not looking at these people as characters but as people that I can talk to and go see time and time again. We have a different relationship to place and people. Not even to individual people but to Nepal and the language. This was productive for our film. He brings a different… I don’t know if ‘objective’ is the right word. This tension is what helps the film. Me alone, I couldn’t have made this film. Pacho alone could not have made this film.
Velez: It was a very different feeling.
Spray: It would have been completely different. I think this is what has been successful about our collaboration and you see that hybridity in the film. It is both a structural work but it also has ethnographic depth. It’s not a [James] Benning film…
Marlow: It deviates from the very beginning.
Spray: It has this human, Pedro Costa‑ian approach at digging at the surface to look at depth. We glide on the surface but the depth also pierces through from time to time.
Marlow: As a single-channel piece as opposed to doing it as an installation, the viewer is in a space with the other passengers. There is nowhere else for their gaze to go as it is focused on the screen. It is difficult for me to know what that experience will be like as the film moves into DVD and VOD. If someone is watching it in their home, there will be distractions. Their attention will wander and that will make the experience less effective in that environment. The same is true of Benning’s work. Has James seen the film?
Velez: No, not yet. Not as far as I know.
Marlow: I wonder what he would think about it?
Spray: I was trying to think. The closest parallel would be Twenty Cigarettes.
Velez: Exactly. The ‘portraiture’ element is similar.
Spray: We have one other character. We have landscape. I was trying to imagine 13 Lakes with someone smoking a cigarette in front.
Velez: Some marriage of those two things.
Spray: Of course, we have movement, too. I love our film in that way because we do combine so many things that we both think are wonderful about cinema. It’s landscape, portraiture, a fixed position for the camera but in a moving space.
Marlow: Your process of working on the audio design was a collaborative process [with sound designer Ernst Karel] as well?
Spray: We had a clear sense. The sound piece in the middle was definitely a deeper engagement of our creative abilities. We worked with him on that. That is his sound piece in the middle. We weren’t quite sure about that at first, two-and-a-half minutes in.
Marlow: It is a testament to the work that no one ever feels like it is two-and-a-half minutes long.
Spray: That’s right.
Marlow: There are many things that happened in the dark spaces. It is a pause that allows the audience a moment to absorb what they’ve just seen and prepare for what is about to happen.
Velez: When we were organizing the film, we were thinking in terms of different kinds of binaries. East/West, people/animals. We wanted ambiance verse talking. There’s no moment that’s image without sound, but the first twenty minutes a lot of the emphasis ends up being on the image, even though there is, of course, the natural sound there. Then we get to the black and you have the sound without the image. There’s a kind of back‑and‑forth-ness that is a part of the rhythm of the film.
Marlow: It was obviously conscious to set the exposure and not touch it, to keep the focus and the framing consistent. That seems imperative. A work of this sort would normally shoot on video but, towards the end, there is a moment where it becomes very apparent that you are shooting on film because the film rolls out. Have you ever projected Manakamana on film or is it always presented digitally?
Velez: We didn’t have the money [to finish on film].
Marlow: That is unfortunate. From here, taking what you’ve learned, what would you like to do next? You’re still working in the Nepalese community?
Spray: I’ve had some projects in the works but I’ve taken a lot of time off right now [related to the birth of her son].
Velez: I have maybe ten or fifteen projects in my book that are what I could do next.
Marlow: There are the six months you’re going to spend documenting my life.
Spray: [Laughs.] That sounds fun.
Marlow: Not particularly. I really do not like having my picture taken! I cannot imagine having a camera around me constantly.
Velez: I am not sure how far afield to go with the next project or how to build it. Is it important to differentiate? These are strategic questions that I don’t even know how to think about. I have a former student who has been building a database of archival images of Ronald Reagan with the idea of fashioning some sort of archival project out of that.
Marlow: You’ll need to get Jelly Belly as a sponsor.
Marlow: That may be one way to get it funded. Maybe not.
Velez: That is slowly moving forward. But I do not know exactly what the film is inside that archive, yet. I, also, have a thought for making a split‑screen film about commuting in Los Angeles. Mounting cameras inside of cars and filming people with ridiculous commutes. You would have one on the driver and one on the passenger, filming with twenty-five to thirty people and then having the right side always be the driver’s seat and the left side being the passenger’s seat. You can flip between cars a little bit. Maybe that would actually belong in an art space rather than in a film space.
Spray: I am still working with many of the people that you see [in Manakamana]. I have been thinking that I would like to build a piece that feels more like a narrative piece that would be structural. A lot of that people that I work with live in dire circumstances. It is pretty bleak. I have been interested in what people do you with their extensive amounts of free time. How do people wile away the time? Pedro Costa has been a nice model for me but he works in a different way than I do. I’ve been trying to build pieces that feel loosely narrative. But working with long stretches of time of people doing nothing. How do these tensions amongst people evolve over time and what does it tell you (and what does it not)?
Marlow: Everyone could play themselves. It would be a version of themselves?
Spray: I would direct in minor ways. They might be sitting on their beds at home, smoking cigarettes. I might say, ‘Could you do this? Could you do that?’ There are a lot of filmmakers who work along those lines, I feel. That is what I am interested in seeing in films. There is not much happening but a lot within that nothing.