Locarno Film Festival: Interview with Manakamana filmmakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

Locarno Film Festival: Interview with Manakamana filmmakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

One of the films
garnering a great deal of buzz at the Locarno International Film Festival is
the extraordinary feature documentary Manakamana
directed by American filmmakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez.

High above the jungle in Nepal, pilgrims go
on an ancient journey, travelling by cable car to reach the Manakamana temple.

The
filmmakers describe the temple, the sacred place of the Hindu Goddess
Bagwait:  Since the 17th century it is
believed that Bhagwati grants the wishes of all those who make the pilgrimage
to her shrine to worship her – some even sacrifice goats or pigeons.  For almost 400 years their only access was a
three-hour uphill trek. 

Challenging
traditional documentary narrative conventions, Spray and Velez chose to use
dialogue sparingly (the first words are spoken about thirty minutes into the
film); they avoid the use of voiceover or titles to explain the history of the
Manakamna temple and the Goddess Bagwait.  The characters do not look at the camera; they
are not interviewed. These compelling and provocative decisions are most
effective.  The images tell the story.

Watching
each of the character’s journey to and from the Manakamana temple in the 5’ x
5’ cable car, it is impossible not to project a backstory onto each character
(if not one’s own backstory); imagining what their lives are like, getting
glimpses of who they are. Manakamana
is a meditative film, and as it unfolds, it becomes more dramatic as some characters
begin to speak. But they speak sparingly. Focus remains on how characters react
to their surroundings in the cable car — looking out the window or avoiding
it, remarking on the hills, the corn fields, the Goddess.

Some Film Facts

The film was shot on 16 mm. Velez
operated the Aaton 7 LTR camera and Spray recorded sound with a shotgun stereo
microphone on a two-channel sound recorder. They rode along with the characters
in the cable car.  Wanting consistent
framing, they hired Nepali carpenters to build a stable wooden base onto which
the filmmakers anchored their hi-hat tripod.

Each shot is about nine minutes — the length of the entire
2.8 kilometer ride up to the temple or down. The cable of the Manakamana cable car also runs par­allel to the spool of film as it is exposed to light.


Directors’ Choices

Pacho
Velez: It’s not a dogmatic film. Some are documentary shots and some are
conceived as kind of fiction. We wanted all these things inside the film. There
was that balance — how much dialogue to include; how much we wanted to reveal.

Stephanie
Spray: We had a variety of characters. Some characters were dialogue heavy,
some expositional, but we ended up not using that because it seemed too much
toward description and explanation.

PV:  In terms of direction we talked to everyone
before we filmed. We were in a town four-to-five hours away by bus from the
cable car; about 80 kilometers.  We chose
the people, we gave them a ride, we talked to them. Many knew Stephanie
previously.

SS:
There is a specific destination — the temple. Our choice was not to show the
temple. We didn’t want to exploit the exotic; we were interested in the banal.
We were trying to let people experience.

PV:
We had shots about the function of the Goddess and what the temple was, but
made a choice not to include that early on. There’s that ‘embodied experience’;
we’re trying to give experience of riding in a cable car, not explaining what
their religion is about.

Challenges
After the Shoot

PV:
We spent twenty-six months putting together the film from shoot to premiere.  When we had time and we were in the same
place, we would work on it.  It was a
slow process because of developing the film. It was shot in Nepal, but they had
no film lab facilities so we had to figure out how to get the film from Nepal
to Mumbai, and from there to the United States. 

SS:
There was a gap after the negative was developed in Mumbai. We had to get three
letters: one from the Indian embassy, the Ministry of Information in Nepal, and
the other from the Film Development Board just to get it carried to India. Someone
we didn’t know, under the name of someone else’s project, brought it to Mumbai.
Once it was developed, it stayed in Mumbai. We couldn’t get it out. We almost
resorted to legal threats, to get the negative shipped to the states.  This was for the first 30 roles of film. 

PV:
 Also, we didn’t know if it was x-rayed
going into the country or to Mumbai, or into Nepal.

SS:
We managed to convince the Fulbright director to get the film in the diplomatic
pouch.  For us it was a blessing to even
begin editing. The first year it was unclear if we could make the film.   There is censorship in Nepal. We didn’t get
a permit from the government to film. 

PV:
We didn’t go through official channels; they think big money budget or IMAX. There’s
no understanding of two people working on a $10,000 budget in the
hinterland.  We shot in June 2011 but we
didn’t see any footage until December. It was six months.

SS:
Pretty stressful. That was just the beginning. Then we needed to shoot
again. 

Manakamana
Defined

Kouguell:
Mana means “heart,” kamana means “wish.” What does it mean to you? 

SS:
There’s a reference when of the three women seated together says, “I’ve always
wanted to come here and now that wish has been fulfilled.” The function of the
Goddess basically — even if they never have been to the temple, if they have
something important in their lives, for example, a daughter can’t conceive —
they make a promise in their hearts, they will give a blood sacrifice to the
Goddess. They have to do their end of the bargain; they have to give the
Goddess their blood.  So there is a
seriousness to this as well.

PV:
There is a seriousness in this exchange. Repercussions could mean your family
could get sick.

SS:
The “Manakamana” title font we chose is imposing. The Goddess is imposing.  The heart’s desire — is dead serious
there.   

PV:
It was important for us to have the idea of the sacrifice inside the film —
important to have a  dead animal in the
cable car. (We see only the chicken feet). Even though none of the significance
is there, that marker is there. It is the last minutes of their lives. 

Several
times during the interview, Stephanie Spray humbly described the obstacles and
gifts of making Manakama, as “A
miracle film.”  Indeed it is.

To learn more about the film and the
filmmakers: http://manakamanafilm.com/

Award-winning
screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting and film at
Tufts University and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY
CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS!
and THE
SAVVY SCREENWRITER,
she is chairperson
of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1990 where she
works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. 
www.su-city-pictures.com.

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