Q&A with “Manakamana” director Pacho Velez
I caught up with Pacho Velez, who co-directed the much talked-about film Manakamana with Stephanie Spray. Watch the film on the big screen at LRFF2014 Friday at 8:30pm and Saturday at 12:15pm, at the Historic Arkansas Museum.
What is Manakamana about?
Pacho Velez: Manakamana is a film about pilgrims making a journey to visit the temple of the goddess Manakamana in Nepal. What makes this journey unique is that it’s done by cable car. For hundreds of years, you spent a day walking up the mountain to visit the temple, but the last 15 years you’ve just ridden in the cable car. The film looks at that journey and more broadly the effect of this technological intervention on traditional religious practice in Nepal. But then it does other things too.
The film consists of uncut shots of journeys in the cable car. Why did you decide to make this film with that structure?
PV: We knew from the start we wanted to shoot whole rides, because it just seemed like a nice way to get to know people. One of the challenges when you’re making films is how do you introduce characters? How do you spend time with a person? Are you constantly cutting from one scene to another with them? How do you learn about a person? Do you learn more about a person if you see them do ten very quick actions or one very long one? So these were some of the thoughts we were having. Why not try something different? Why not just have them be extended periods with each character? And in terms of the order it actually took us a long time to figure out the order of the eleven in the film. We were editing for about 18 months, which works out to about one edit every 40 days. In some ways the challenge of the film was to get past the structure. We knew that we had this structure, but we didn’t want people in the theater thinking about the structure. We wanted them thinking about the characters, the people onscreen, and enjoying the little human moments with each character.
You rode in the car with the passengers, operating the equipment. Why did you do that as opposed to having a more fixed, anonymous camera watching them?
PV: Part of the reason we were in the car with the characters were the technical choices that we made. We wanted to shoot on film, and film means a big bulky camera with a really limited runtime. It’s not like video where you can just set the camera going for two hours. But I think it also gives the film a different sense. What’s exciting about filmmaking and cinema is that it can register presences that aren’t clearly there. I’m thinking about transcendental cinema – our film is not transcendental cinema – but if you think about transcendental cinema, the project of that is to somehow register holiness in sound and image. You’re watching a Bresson film and if you have an experience, a religious feeling or sense of presence, it’s not because of what you’re seeing or hearing, and yet somehow the film is giving you that sense. In more mundane terms I think part of what’s going on in Manakamana is you feel our presence in the car. We’re there even though we’re not on the soundtrack or in the images. And it just adds to the mood in a certain way. I think also there are moments where we’re very very subtly acknowledged by the characters. A look into the camera or a smile. One or two people speak lines that seem like they’re for a person that would be there. So there’s a little bit of our presence. The other film we could have made was one where we spent the whole time talking to the characters, and it was very explicit that we were in the car with them. And somehow it felt like that film would have been more about one thing, about these Americans talking to these Nepalese, and the cross-cultural gap. But that felt like something we had seen before, and we were more interested in effacing that.
Is that something you would still say the film is about – outsiders looking at a different culture?
PV: I think that’s definitely in there. I think of it as a matter of emphasis. Whereas if we had been interviewing them that would have been the primary meaning, right now I think it’s like the fourth or fifth undertone.
How many trips did you film? What questions were you thinking about in choosing which ones to include?
PV: We shot 35 rides in total, and 11 made it into the film. As we were making those choices we were thinking about themes that would repeat. Words that would repeat. For instance the characters talk about their ears popping a lot. So that was great, it was nice to have that continually reoccur. Or mentions of the sal trees, which were these trees on the hill. Mentions of the corn fields. But then also of course we were looking for those that had some kind of movement inside of them, some kind of shift or change through the ride. So that you don’t get everything in the first minute or 30 seconds and then the last 10 minutes you’re like, when is this going to end! Hopefully there’s a kind of development and a change and a shift and you learn new things about people, you see them in a new light. And those kinds of shifts are important for the rhythm and pacing of the film.
This follows several other films from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, such as Leviathan in 2012. How do you classify this type of film, and what is the purpose behind the idea of sensory ethnography?
PV: There’s two things. One is the type of film, and for me it’s very much a documentary. I think what people don’t talk about is that it’s actually quite funny and weird and quirky and there’s a lot of emotional content.
It’s entertainment on some level.
PV: Yeah, it’s entertainment. Don’t go into it with your head too full of ideas. Go in to enjoy it, please. In terms of what sensory ethnography is about, I would say broadly it’s about taking the idea that culture is about more than utterances and texts and linguistic signs seriously. Saying that there is some kind of cultural value and cultural understanding to sounds and images. Broadly speaking, trying to get away from just using language as the only kind of signifier in a film. You’re sitting there and you’re watching people talk or watching text onscreen and thinking that means you’re learning about them. That’s a kind of artificial construct. And sensory ethnography is interested in what happens if you doubt that. If you say, actually, when people talk, most of the time they’re lying. Or they’re not lying, but people speak out of self-interest. What it brings me back to is there’s something you say in theater when you’re developing a role: it’s not what the character says, it’s what the character does that defines the character. Because people will say all kinds of things. If a character says ‘I love you,’ its the most boring thing in the world if that character actually means ‘I love you.’ What’s exciting is when you say ‘I love you,’ but it actually means ‘I hate you,’ or I’m actually indifferent about you. Or what I really want is your car, or something. So there’s another kind of meaning going on, and that meaning is carried in action and activity. And finding ways to foreground that kind of meaning is one of the projects of sensory ethnography.
So much of the film is in the audience’s own experience In taking it to festivals and showing it to people, have you realized anything about the film you didn’t know before?
PV: Well, first of all, that people like it! When we were making it, we kept worrying that nobody weould ever go see this movie. But it’s really so different for different audiences. Some people respond more to the cultural content. Some people respond more to the humanistic element, the faces, the glances. Some people respond more to the formal elements and get really excited about the structure of the piece. And I’m glad that people are able to appreciate it from so many different points of view.
Have you been to Little Rock before? What are you excited about doing here?
PV: This is my first time in Little Rock. It’s nice. I’m excited; I’ve heard good things about the biking trails on the river, and the river looks beautiful, and the weather is so nice. I’m excited to go out and bike a bit.
By Cameron Zohoori