Filmmaking | Interviews | Massachusetts | Screenplay Doctor

Manakamana: An Interview from the Locarno Film Festival

1 Sep , 2013  

Written by Susan Kouguell | Posted by:

Screenplay Doctor Susan Kouguell went overseas to interview Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, the two filmmakers behind Manakamana, a film which just won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival.

During the Locarno International Film Festival in August, I interviewed Manakamana filmmakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez where their film had its world premiere: at the Festival’s Concorso Cineasti del Presente (Cinema of the Present competition), which is dedicated to emerging directors from all over the world. Just days after our interview, Manakamana was awarded the Golden Leopard, the top prize in its category.

Film Study Center fellows Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez began their collaboration at the Sensory Ethnography Laboratory at Harvard University. Filmmaker and anthropologist Spray has been working at the Sensory Ethnography Laboratory since 2006; she received a Master’s degree in the study of world religions from Harvard Divinity School and a Bachelor of Arts from Smith College. Her internationally screened films include Kāle and Kāle (2007), Monsoon-Reflections (2008), Untitled (bed) (2009), As Long as There’s Breath (2010) and Untitled (2010). Pacho Velez received his MFA at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. He now works and teaches between New York and Boston. Velez’s films include Stuck in the Wake (2014), Bastards of Utopia (2010) and Orphans of Mathare (2003). His film and theater work have been featured worldwide.

Manakamana

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

The filmmakers describe the temple as 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.

The 16mm film was shot entirely inside a 5’ x 5’ cable car inside which Velez operated the Aaton 7 LTR camera and Spray recorded sound with a shotgun stereo microphone on a two-channel sound recorder. Spray and Velez rode along with their subjects (people and animals) 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.

Stephanie Spray: We chose to shoot on film not only for aesthetic reasons, but also because it lends structural integrity to our commitment to filming the full duration of rides on the cable car.

Pacho Velez: Film is beautiful and messy in just the right ways. A clean, crisp digital image would have felt incongruous. It would have allied the film’s aesthetics with the engineers who designed the cable car instead of the locals who use it. Also, both motion picture cameras and cable cars are machines that measure time through movement.

Each of the 11 shots is about nine minutes — the length of the entire 2.8 kilometer ride up to the temple or down — and corresponds to the duration of a roll of 16 mm film. The cable of the Manakamana cable car also runs par¬allel to the spool of film as it is exposed to light.

Spray: We decided at the outset that the units of the film would be uncut 10-11 minute shots lasting the length of an entire 400’ magazine of 16 mm film. How to structure these shots became a puzzle that we worked on for an eternity.

Velez: Our pace of editing was glacial. The final film has only 11 shots but it took us 18 months of editing to arrive at it, which works out to our deciding on one shot every 40 days or so. One thing that’s very nice about the Sensory Photo Lab and Harvard’s film program is that they really give you the time to finish a project correctly — we had the time to collaborate correctly. We spent 26 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.

Spray: 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 the negative 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 rolls of film.

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

Spray: 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.

Velez: 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.

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

Susan Kouguell: Manakamana challenges traditional documentary narrative conventions. The characters speak minimal dialogue — their first words are spoken about 30 minutes into the film. The characters do not look into the camera, you do not interview them, and you avoid the use of voiceover or titles to explain the history of the Manakamana temple and the Goddess Bagwait.

Velez: It’s not a dogmatic film. Some are documentary shots and some are conceived as a 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.

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.

Velez: 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.

Kouguell: You made an interesting choice not to film the Manakamana temple.

Spray: 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.

Velez: 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 the experience of riding in a cable car, not explaining what their religion is about.

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

Spray: There’s a reference when one 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.

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

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

Velez: 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. (The filmmakers show only the chicken’s feet). Even though none of the significance is there, that marker is there. It is the last minutes of their lives.

Kouguell: Your advice to aspiring filmmakers?

Velez: Remember that the most interesting part of filmmaking is outside of language, usually. And if you can write it as an essay, you’re better off writing an essay.

Spray: What Pacho says is right. It’s often not through language; it’s using images itself.

Next stop for Manakamana is the Toronto International Film Festival. 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 is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and film executives worldwide ( www.su-city-pictures.com; http://su-city-pictures.com/wpblog/). Susan wrote The Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out! (St. Martin’s Griffin) and SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises, which is available at $1.00 off by clicking on www.createspace.com/3558862 and using DISCOUNT CODE: G22GAZPD. To order the Kindle version: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009SB8Z7M (discount code does not apply). To read an excerpt go to: https://www.createspace.com/Preview/1089452. Follow Susan at Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and SKouguell Twitter page to receive more Savvy Tips.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting and film at Tufts University, and is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and film executives worldwide ( www.su-city-pictures.com; http://su-city-pictures.com/wpblog/). Susan wrote The Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out! (St. Martin’s Griffin) and SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises, which is available at $1.00 off by clicking on www.createspace.com/3558862 and using DISCOUNT CODE: G22GAZPD. To order the Kindle version: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009SB8Z7M (discount code does not apply). To read an excerpt go to: https://www.createspace.com/Preview/1089452. Follow Susan at Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and SKouguell Twitter page to receive more Savvy Tips.