COLUMBIA, Mo. (RNS) Documentary filmmakers will converge in mid-Missouri this weekend for the True/False Film Fest, bringing with them stories from around the globe.
One of those stories is “Manakamana,” and it intimately depicts the journeys of people who go to the top of a mountain in Nepal to visit a wish-fulfilling Hindu goddess.
The entire film takes place in a cable car – going up, coming down, looking around. Through the camera lens, viewers ride with men and women, young and old, people and animals. Some rides are silent; others are full of conversation.
Each ride is shown in real-time, in one uninterrupted take. The film was shot using 16mm film – the length of one role of film corresponds almost perfectly with a one-way ride, which is about 10 minutes.
Religion News Service spoke with directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez to find out more about the film. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Let’s talk a little about the backstory. Stephanie, I understand 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 come from?
A: 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.
Q: And Pacho, when Stephanie approached you, what piqued your interest?
A: 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.
Q: Of all the temples in Nepal, why this one?
A: Stephanie: 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.
Q: You focus on the pilgrimage itself – it’s all about the journey, and we never see the destination. What are your thoughts behind that choice?
A: Pacho: We designed “Manakamana” to focus on the pilgrimage because that’s the 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 use to be a very bodily experience and intense physical hike up this mountain has turned into a 10-minute cable car ride.
And there’re good aspects to that. But at the same time, something is lost by that shift. 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, it has some effect on the spiritual impact of the journey.
Stephanie: The whole point of our film, like you said, is the journey; it’s less the destination. 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?
But what’s more important than the temple itself is this encounter with the goddess. But what does the goddess look like? It’s never going to live up to representations – we can’t represent that in our film. Not only that, we felt it was more respectful actually to not show that – not to try to encapsulate what the destination is within an image.
Q: What do you hope the audience takes away from this film?
A: Stephanie: 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.
Pacho: 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.
This story was produced in partnership with KBIA 91.3 FM, and is part of the 2014 True/False Conversations Series.