It wasn’t so long ago that in order to reach Manakamana temple one had to walk for days, across rivers, over mountains and through sprawling sal forests. Since the completion of a new cable car service, which in 1998 finally linked the isolated sacred site in Gorkha District with the city of Cheres, a round trip need only take seventeen minutes – the journey uphill lasting only marginally longer than the descent. Among those taking advantage of the new service are a man and a boy, a pair of sarangi players and a small herd of goats.
It’s amazing what can be gleaned through observation and relatively idle chit-chat. Though the first few occupants content themselves with simply soaking in the surrounding scenery from their novel vantage point, guarded commentary soon gives way to enthusiastic conversation as the silent single occupants are replaced with increasingly vibrant groups. By the time a triad of long-haired metal-heads board the car with their inquisitive kitten and individual digital cameras initial reservations are forgotten, and what began as a simple curiosity develops quickly into an utterly captivating insight into another culture. It seems that not even the noble Nepalese are above the odd selfie.
From an older couple carrying a chicken up the mountain we learn that the altitude is enough to make your ears pop (it is Everest country after all); from a group of elderly passengers — two of them co-wives — we develop a basic understanding of the pilgrimage’s history and purpose (mostly through a fable involving a figure called Kalika). From a pair of musicians busy tuning their instruments we are invited to sample the local arts (and savour something rather more traditional than ‘Oviraptors’, or whatever else the kids are listening to these days). With each new passenger it becomes more difficult to picture the temple at the top of the hill; what sort of destination could such diverse people possibly have in common?
It’s never entirely clear whether the participants in this fly-on-the-wall documentary have been primed by the filmmakers before entering the station or if their behaviour onboard can reasonably be accepted as authentic. The camera is an unmistakable presence in the cabin – its whirs combine with ambient wind and birdsong to create the soundscape, and its reflection is often visible in the window behind the passengers’ heads – but for the most part the subjects seem almost willfully unaware of their audience. Certainly, there seems to be little management in the way they react to the camera, or impetus for them to engage with their prospective viewers in any way at all.
That said, changes in light and the odd double descent does suggest that directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez are indeed manipulating the footage, and that we are not simply watching an uninterrupted series of consecutive return journeys. It’s worth mentioning that 16mm film comes in 400-foot reels (which, incidentally, last about as long as a single journey up or down the mountain), leaving the directors to arrange the sequences in any order they wish, using the darkness inside the stations to mask their edits. Why these particular episodes made the cut is unclear – some have precious little to offer in the way of activity or insight – but highlights abound nonetheless: a pair of well-dressed women wrestling with messy ice creams, the return of the chicken (now dead) and the aforementioned goats all prove unexpectedly entertaining.
While the characters might not always engage the scenery never fails to impress. Whether glimpsed through windows, over heads or between the bars of the replacement goat enclosure the Nepalese countryside is a wonder to behold, while snatches of chaotic conversation at either of the cable car stations provide a reliable respite from even the most stoic and prolonged of silences. As seems to be the case for many of the passengers, this particular pilgrimage is both a privilege and a pleasure.