The goats look worried. I can’t recall another film where a scene showing goats was so revelatory, so weird, so funny and sad. But here they are in Manakamana, a foursome of goats, tied so that their movements are limited, riding in a cable car to a temple in the Ghorka district of Nepal. When the car bumps or sways or the cables grind, the goats react, scrambling to maintain their hoofy footing, bleating as if in surprise, pulling against the ropes that keep their necks in place, occasionally lowering their heads as if in submission or even some sort of goaty prayer.
The scene lasts about ten minutes, the time it takes the goats to ride from their starting point to the temple Manakamana, sacred place of the Hindu goddess Bhagwati. In this, the goats repeat what ten other sets of cable car riders do in Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s remarkable film, which is to say, they are transported, essentially helpless and rocking in the wind, from one mountain top to another, a fixed camera capturing their experience, attended by the cranking and grinding of the machinery, each long take at once profoundly different and eerily similar to one another.
Just so, as the goats stand and pitch and fret, ears fluttering in the wind one moment, crying out in the next, so too the people in this peculiar frame also show signs of contemplation and then unease, interaction and disorientation. They speak or they don’t, they look off screen, admiring the trees and the hills that are “huge”, as more than one observer says, and they carry their stuff, their flowers and bags and food and, in one case, their chicken.
They’re going to the temple or coming back, they’re pensive or thinking ahead to a next activity (a pair of girls discuss the many photos they’ve taken, and the time it takes to sort through them). And in each case, the stationary camera frames people on seats in a moving five-by-five car, emerging from the darkness of a shed, then returning to darkness on the other end. The separate yet connected stories transport you into long minutes, experiences simultaneously extraordinary and familiar.
The riders include a range of types, an old man and a boy in a baseball cap, who say essentially nothing to one another; a trio of rocker boys with long hair and t-shirts, their cameras at the ready for selfies and the occasional shot of the vast space outside the car; a couple of women who giggle and smile as they eat the ice cream bars they mean not to expose to a public look, hoping not to spill the vanilla sweetness on the seat. And a woman reminds her companion that this journey to the temple used to take her three days, when she walked from her village.
These moments are lovely, entertaining, and reflective, less because someone you’re watching might say something or pose a question, than because you’re posing questions as you watch, not only of these faces but also of yourself.
Produced by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel at Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Manakamana recalls the fierce contemplations of films they directed too, Sweetgrass and Leviathan. But this new adventure in what films might do is its own animal, as well. The filmmakers suggest the film contemplates time, in an abstract and also very immediate, everyday sense, and this seems right.
In part, you are acutely aware of the time it takes for each trip to be completed, or at least, for one to fade out and another to fade in. But you are also aware, if you’re inclined, of another element of time at work in the film, that these trips, these figures, serve as screens for your own projection, for your own guesses at what someone might think or want, what some goat might feel, what some ice cream might taste like.
For any of these experiences, you might have your own answer, your own version, and for any of them, the film provides another option. Which is why the goats resonate. At first, they look like goats, heads in motion, one turned sort of toward you, another’s rear end directly at the frame’s center. If, you might ponder, the human riders are aware of the camera and then forget it, are aware of the camera and address it, are aware of the camera and ignore it, what can goats manage?
How might you measure their awareness, what they know and forget, how they manage time. Can goats worry? If they can’t know that the ride is over in ten minutes, they also can’t know what awaits them when it’s over. Can they remember what precedes it? If they do, how might this matter for goats? It’s a moment you won’t soon forget, watching them.