Stephanie and Pacho at the Locarno FF
Stephanie and Pacho at the Locarno FF

One of the films garnering a great deal of buzz at the Locarno International Film Festival is the extraordinary feature documentary Manakamana directed by American filmmakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez.

High above the jungle in Nepal, pilgrims go on an ancient journey, travelling by cable car to reach the Manakamana temple.

The filmmakers describe the temple, the sacred place of the Hindu Goddess Bagwait:  Since the 17th century it is believed that Bhagwati grants the wishes of all those who make the pilgrimage to her shrine to worship her – some even sacrifice goats or pigeons.  For almost 400 years their only access was a three-hour uphill trek. 

Challenging traditional documentary narrative conventions, Spray and Velez chose to use dialogue sparingly (the first words are spoken about thirty minutes into the film); they avoid the use of voiceover or titles to explain the history of the Manakamna temple and the Goddess Bagwait.  The characters do not look at the camera; they are not interviewed. These compelling and provocative decisions are most effective.  The images tell the story.

Watching each of the character’s journey to and from the Manakamana temple in the 5’ x 5’ cable car, it is impossible not to project a backstory onto each character (if not one’s own backstory); imagining what their lives are like, getting glimpses of who they are. Manakamana is a meditative film, and as it unfolds, it becomes more dramatic as some characters begin to speak. But they speak sparingly. Focus remains on how characters react to their surroundings in the cable car -- looking out the window or avoiding it, remarking on the hills, the corn fields, the Goddess.

Some Film Facts

The film was shot on 16 mm. Velez operated the Aaton 7 LTR camera and Spray recorded sound with a shotgun stereo microphone on a two-channel sound recorder. They rode along with the characters in the cable car.  Wanting consistent framing, they hired Nepali carpenters to build a stable wooden base onto which the filmmakers anchored their hi-hat tripod.

Each shot is about nine minutes -- the length of the entire 2.8 kilometer ride up to the temple or down. The cable of the Manakamana cable car also runs par­allel to the spool of film as it is exposed to light.

Directors’ Choices

Pacho Velez: It’s not a dogmatic film. Some are documentary shots and some are conceived as kind of fiction. We wanted all these things inside the film. There was that balance -- how much dialogue to include; how much we wanted to reveal.

Stephanie Spray: We had a variety of characters. Some characters were dialogue heavy, some expositional, but we ended up not using that because it seemed too much toward description and explanation.

PV:  In terms of direction we talked to everyone before we filmed. We were in a town four-to-five hours away by bus from the cable car; about 80 kilometers.  We chose the people, we gave them a ride, we talked to them. Many knew Stephanie previously.

SS: There is a specific destination -- the temple. Our choice was not to show the temple. We didn’t want to exploit the exotic; we were interested in the banal. We were trying to let people experience.

PV: We had shots about the function of the Goddess and what the temple was, but made a choice not to include that early on. There’s that ‘embodied experience’; we’re trying to give experience of riding in a cable car, not explaining what their religion is about.

Challenges After the Shoot

PV: We spent twenty-six months putting together the film from shoot to premiere.  When we had time and we were in the same place, we would work on it.  It was a slow process because of developing the film. It was shot in Nepal, but they had no film lab facilities so we had to figure out how to get the film from Nepal to Mumbai, and from there to the United States. 

SS: There was a gap after the negative was developed in Mumbai. We had to get three letters: one from the Indian embassy, the Ministry of Information in Nepal, and the other from the Film Development Board just to get it carried to India. Someone we didn’t know, under the name of someone else’s project, brought it to Mumbai. Once it was developed, it stayed in Mumbai. We couldn’t get it out. We almost resorted to legal threats, to get the negative shipped to the states.  This was for the first 30 roles of film. 

PV:  Also, we didn’t know if it was x-rayed going into the country or to Mumbai, or into Nepal.

SS: We managed to convince the Fulbright director to get the film in the diplomatic pouch.  For us it was a blessing to even begin editing. The first year it was unclear if we could make the film.   There is censorship in Nepal. We didn’t get a permit from the government to film. 

PV: We didn’t go through official channels; they think big money budget or IMAX. There’s no understanding of two people working on a $10,000 budget in the hinterland.  We shot in June 2011 but we didn’t see any footage until December. It was six months.

SS: Pretty stressful. That was just the beginning. Then we needed to shoot again. 

Manakamana Defined

Kouguell: Mana means “heart,” kamana means “wish.” What does it mean to you? 

SS: There’s a reference when of the three women seated together says, “I’ve always wanted to come here and now that wish has been fulfilled.” The function of the Goddess basically -- even if they never have been to the temple, if they have something important in their lives, for example, a daughter can’t conceive -- they make a promise in their hearts, they will give a blood sacrifice to the Goddess. They have to do their end of the bargain; they have to give the Goddess their blood.  So there is a seriousness to this as well.

PV: There is a seriousness in this exchange. Repercussions could mean your family could get sick.

SS: The “Manakamana” title font we chose is imposing. The Goddess is imposing.  The heart’s desire -- is dead serious there.   

PV: It was important for us to have the idea of the sacrifice inside the film -- important to have a  dead animal in the cable car. (We see only the chicken feet). Even though none of the significance is there, that marker is there. It is the last minutes of their lives. 

Several times during the interview, Stephanie Spray humbly described the obstacles and gifts of making Manakama, as “A miracle film.”  Indeed it is.

To learn more about the film and the filmmakers:

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting and film at Tufts University and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide.