December 5, 2013
This Sunday, the Forum on Image and Language In Motion (F.I.L.M.) and the Asian Studies department will screen Manakamana, a recent project by filmmakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez. The filmmakers will introduce the film and participate in a Q&A session after the screening.
We sat down with Professor Scott MacDonald to discuss Manakamana, the final F.I.L.M. Event until next fall.
The Spectator: Tell us a little bit about Manakamana.
Scott MacDonald: Manakamana is like being in Nepal and taking a ride on the cable car. In a sense, it's sort of similar to people-watching, so if you like people-watching then it's the perfect film. All the films from the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard take a while to get into. The normal way to get into a film is via narrative—but this film is coming at you in a sensory way. It begins with only sound, like all the Sensory Ethnography Lab films. As a viewer, you're inside a sort of sensorium before you even see anything. About 10-15 minutes into the movie, you have to make a decision whether or not you want to embark on this experience. It's a challenge to your normal way of being.
One of the filmmakers of Manakamana works at the Sensory Ethnography Lab. What kind of films does the Sensory Ethnography Lab produce? How is their approach to filmmaking unique or different?
The Sensory Ethnography Lab is sort of a studio—it's a program at Harvard that explores ideas, settings or experiences the audience hasn't seen before. In the fall they think about a project and in the spring they shoot it. The program goes through summer and next fall for editing. What distinguishes the filmmakers is they're all PhD candidates in Anthropology—they are all highly educated in the history of “representing things.” Despite their varied backgrounds, filmmaking is their primary occupation, but they maintain a very different sensibility than those coming out of “normal” film school. People who come out of the program see a wide variety of film; they're not viewing a lot of film coming out of Hollywood traditions. Their experience is informed by experimental film and documentary.
Other F.I.L.M. films from the Sensory Ethnography Lab include People's Park and Leviathan. What distinguishes Manakamana?
Filmmaker James Benning is very important for the background of Sensory Ethnography Lab. Anyone who knows his film 13 Lakes will recognize its structure in Manakamana. Ernst Karel's sound projects have also profoundly influenced the works produced by the lab. Manakamana, unlike Leviathan, reduces the role of the filmmaker. Its long shots allow you to think about the nature of what you're seeing. You're not thinking of how the filmmaker composed it, where they are in the shot or how their presence is felt. It's an ethical strategy—looking at the cable car setting and Nepalese people for 10 minutes will tell you more about them than anything a narrator could tell you about them. It's not really an ethnographic film; like Leviathan and People's Park, it's primarily a sensory experience.
Manakamana is shot entirely in Nepal. What is the attraction, for you, of a film set in another country, and in an environment far across the globe?
Film is fundamentally about going to see a place that you'll probably never get to. Filmmaker Stephanie Spray originally went to Nepal to learn Nepalese music. She was interested in the cultural and spiritual life, and then started making films which were ingenious, thoughtful and relatively conventional but without a narrator. Her films put you inside a home or a village. Manakamana is not really a picture book—you're really there. You can make a kind of visit. The setting is a pilgrimage spot where visitors spend days going up a mountain, though now you go up by cable car. The range of folks who ride up the cable car is very broad. It's like two hours in a real Nepal with all kinds of people. As Robert Bresson said, “show us the things that without cinema we couldn't see.”
Any expectations for F.I.L.M. next fall? What's the process of selecting films like?
I'm hoping to bring the Alloy Orchestra back. I try to show stuff I'm discovering and recent films, with a tendency to bring people who are emerging or a bit under the radar. Maybe we'll show Matt Porterfield's new film I Used To Be Darker next year. He's a Baltimore neo-realist. We really aim to present a variety of films and experiences.