Manakamana: Filming the banal

August 30, 2016 , by Jerusha Rai, Leave your thoughts
Manakamana: Filming the banal » My Dreams Mag
Manakamana (2013) is the meditative yet humorous outcome of filmmaker Stephanie Spray’s reflections on the ethics of cross-cultural documentary. Within the structure of the cable car ride to the temple, we are confronted face to face with people who are often depicted merely as anthropological subjects. Far removed from the landscape, the film is least concerned with invasive observations into their daily lives. We witness instead the subject’s conscious ‘performance of the self’. At the same time, the space allows one to ponder the filmmakers’ presence and role.

Spray’s unusual perspective is of a filmmaker, phonograph and anthropologist and her experience of living in Nepal for eight years, wandering with a community of, Gandarvas, the traveling musicians and living with their families. Currently, a Teaching Fellow in the Sensory Ethnography Laboratory at Harvard University, she has made six films and video works in Nepal that have been screened internationally.

DREAMS in conversation with Spray:

How did you get interested in filmmaking in Nepal?

In 2001, I received a Fulbright Grant,and went traveling and playing music with the Gandarvas.
I started making films in 2006. It was a wonderful opportunity, but I also thought about it in terms of privilege. How it was that I, like many students from the US, are able to go study in another country, while others couldn’t. It was the close friendships with the people in Nepal that keep bringing me back.

You mention being able to travel is a privilege for you. Do you feel like the cultural flow has been uni-directional?

I don’t think it has been uni-directional. But thinking in terms of mobility, and access to resources, there is a huge difference. I was frustrated with anthropology due to its obsession with gathering data. Though a lot of anthropologists are sincerely motivated by questions about social justice and economic disparity, their work is not legible to the people they worked with.

Manakamana (2013) especially has angered more foreigners than Nepalis. Anthropologists working in Nepal complained that it doesn’t explain enough, and does not take a position of authority. My question to that – to whom is it supposed to explain and for what reason? Some are also quick to dismiss it as an “art film”.

With such issues in mind, how do you approach your own filmmaking?

I don’t make what you could call “easy” films. Some people find it easier to digest films with a voiceover or narrative. I find those methods to be a disguise, giving the audience the sense that the filmmaker has a grasp or understanding of that world. I was more interested in maintaining that distance so that people would reflect on the ethics of the camera and of filmmaking.

I made a short before this film called Untitled (2010), where a deliberate distance is maintained. Some people commented “I wouldn’t feel comfortable subjecting people to a camera like that”, but the truth is – it happens all the time in ethnography, though it’s cut in such a way that makes the foreign audience comfortable, so they can categorize it as an educational documentary.

There should be a space in the film where the audience can question the film itself.

Manakamana is set within the closed space inside the cable cars, where the subject is directly across the viewer throughout the journey. It seems an opportunity to relate to them as people, rather than as anthropological subjects. Was there a reason you chose that particular setting?

In previous films, I had been recording the characters in their private spaces, like when they were cutting grass, even in their bedrooms. I felt sick because they trusted me, and had let me into their lives. Who was I to then make a film out of that?

In most of the films consumed by the “West”, these people are portrayed as poor, categorized in terms of their caste or tribe. People forget that they are living people with complexities. So what I liked about the cable car is that they could just be themselves in that moment; the filmmaker does not have to divulge their whole life.

The perspective of the cable car also allowed for a distance from the landscape, and the people talked about the changes in the landscape, about development. It allowed for reflection. Of course, there is the fact that they were taking the cable car for darshan at the Manakamana Temple, and that’s an important element, but so many films have been made about the sacred, the mystical, ritualistic experience. I thought why not show the banal, the journey?

How was your experience of traveling across Nepal with the Gandarvas different from your academic knowledge about the country?

When I started traveling with them, I had just finished my PhD; I had been writing a lot. There is a way of writing where you try to contain and hold all of life, but then there are those things about life… you know, like what people smoke- Bijuli cigarettes, the way they smoke it- cupping it with both hands and passing it around, using their secret language Pingul bhasa that other Nepalis don’t understand. Things like that may not fit into a grand theory of life, but what I loved about filmmaking is that those things that can’t be contained in words could exist.

When I was in the villages, I had to think a lot more about who I was, and I depended on them emotionally. Also, I had to be responsible, as they were letting me into their lives. Actually, spending most of my time with the Gandharbas made it difficult to spend time even with other Nepali people (laughs).

Did you explore Nepali literature or films that influenced your filmmaking?

Some 11 years back, when I was studying with Tara Nath Sharma, a famous Nepali litterateur with whom I learned Nepali language, I read the classics like Muna Madan. I also studied Sanskrit while I was doing my study on religion. Also, the Nepali they teach you at the University is very ‘proper’, and very different from the way people speak in the villages in the Mid-Western region, or the language in the songs of the Gandarbhas. That is where I spent most of my time, so I have a bit of an identity crisis when I am in Kathmandu!

Does your close relationship with your subjects allow for more genuine moments to be captured? How does it affect your filmmaking?

I used to eat with them, play with the children, listen to gossip. But the dynamics kind of changed when I took up filmmaking. They thought I would make a lot of money out of it. It was a constant joke they made about how the ‘West’ loved images of poverty.

Some people might say that its exploitative, that the subjects are not conscious of these issues. Actually, they are very aware and sensitive about their image and its economy. When I showed them the films, they made critiques, asking me why I had made certain editorial cuts!

People comment that there’s an artifice in the film; they’re kind of obsessed with trying to see these subjects in their naked, ‘genuine’ form, which is invasive. The subjects are engaged in the performance of the self. Why not look at them the way they want to present themselves? Manakamana is about that performance.

Do you plan to continue making films with the same subjects in the future?

I would love to. I haven’t been able to go to Nepal as often since my son was born and due to my teaching job. I’ve made all my films in Nepal so far, so I wanted to film something else to get a fresh perspective for when I do go back to Nepal. This fall I will be filming on a scientific drilling ship in the West Pacific ocean for two months. After that, I hope to go back to Nepal just to reconnect with my friends there; filmmaking could just be an excuse.

I feel an affection and intimacy with the subjects in the process of filmmaking itself. It’s a way of being in the world.

Words by Jerush Rai.
Photos: manakamanafilm.com.
Read more from Jerusha here.
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