Saturday, June 14, 2014

Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab's new documentary "Manakamana" at Northwest Film Forum: Jun 20 - 26

Opening next weekend at Northwest Film Forum! The documentary has taken massive evolutionary leaps in just the past quarter-century, some of the most striking of it's new forms have been the visual essayist films issuing from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab and their Visual and Environmental Studies Department. The vanguard of this observational cinema can be seen in the work of the department's Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, and their "Leviathan" and "People's Park" of last year. Whether it be the effect of time-distention in Montana's rolling grasslands as imbued by "Sweetgrass", the cosmic space-like depths of night off the New England coast, or a summer afternoon in Chengdu China; Cohn, Sniadecki, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor presented these locales as though seen through the eyes of an off-worlder; the Earth as a place of wonder, danger and mystery. This is a cinema that is tangible, time-specific and very much about our place within it all. Both Dennis Lim's "The Merger of Academia and Art House: Harvard Filmmakers’ Messy World" and Irina Leimbacher's "The World Made Flesh: Toward a Post-Humanist Cinema" go some way to convey the richly political, anthropological, physical, auditory, visual, experience of their singular body of work. To which the Department's newest, "Manakamana" marks an extension of these techniques. Of and about the Manakamana Temple in the Gorkha district of Nepal, Venerated since the 17th century as the sacred residence of the Hindu Goddess Bhagwati. It is believed that Bhagwati grants the wishes of all those who make the pilgrimage to her shrine, this pilgrimage which once involved a three hour uphill hike, is now traversed by a cable car gondola and it is this suspended 'pilgrimage' that Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez depict in their film. Constructed from a series of trips first up the mountain and then back down into the valley, the entirety of the film is shot within the cable car, with a fixed frame that faces the passengers, incorporating the landscape as seen through the windows, and little more. The result is formal and meditative, allowing for the space and open-ness of duration for the viewer's observation to acclimate to the scale of the outer landscape, the closed environment of the gondola and the subtle human interaction of it's occupants. Spray and Velez's approach to these portraits of individuals, couples, groups of friends during a moment of transport and transformation explored in Scott MacDonald's interview with the directors for Film Comment. It's effect Jonathan Romney describes in his Film of the Week review making for a series of fascinating portraits - in the painterly sense - pictures of people not knowingly giving away anything of themselves, but revealing an abundance upon which imagination casts it's colors.