What makes this unusual documentary a work of cinema? It’s all about faces, and in the movie world, a face is much more important than acting. The same is not true for theater. The face in that art form is protected by the distance between the audience and the stage. On the screen, there is very little distance between the audience and the face. The body is for the theater, the face for film. In it, we look for the person’s soul in the eyes, their emotional state in the movement or stillness of the lips, their thoughts in the rise and fall of the brows.
What we get in Manakamana, a film directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, are lots of faces of people who are inside cable cars heading up or down a verdant and mountainous region of Nepal. We see tired faces, sad faces, worried faces, confused faces, lost faces. In one cable car, three young (Nepalese?) rockers with long black hair sit and talk about whatever is floating through their minds. One of them has a kitten on his lap. The kitten climbs up his shoulder and enters the realm of the hair that frames the very vain expression on the rocker’s face. The rocker next to him has a pleasing and friendly face. And the one next to him has a philosophical nose. All of them have digital cameras. In another car, goats take the trip over the mountains. Like theatrical actors, their faces tell us much less than their bodies, which make it very clear that they have no idea why the fuck they are suddenly flying through the air. After the goats, we are back to human faces.
In one car, we see the face of a white American woman who sits next to a westernized East Asian woman. Both are lost in their thoughts. But the thoughts of the East Asian seem to be much heavier than those of the white American. Later, we see two ancient Nepalese women eating ice cream. There is no plot in this film, which, like Libbie Dina Cohn and J.P. Sniadecki’s brilliant People’s Park, emerged from Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. What we see and enjoy is the king of cinema: the human visage.