Friday, April 25, 2014

Nashville Film Festival 2014, Day Nine: Manakamana, Whitey and More

Posted By on Fri, Apr 25, 2014 at 10:24 AM


With Thursday's screenings marking exactly a week since opening night, the Nashville Film Festival is beginning its slow build to the final screenings on Saturday. I find myself sneaking in last-minute looks at films I wasn't able to watch when they premiered. I also find my mind wandering, asking which films I enjoyed the most.

I'm not quite ready to sum up my personal best of the fest. Instead, I've tried to find other people I could charm into telling me theirs. Luckily, there are so many enthusiastic cineastes at the theater this week I haven't had to ask twice.

Allison Inman bid a hasty hello as she rushed past me on her way to the re-scheduled premiere of Happy Christmas on Wednesday morning. Inman is the education and engagement director at the Belcourt Theatre as well as a juror for the documentary film category at the fest. After the film Inman told me she felt that Happy Christmas might be the best Joe Swanberg film she'd ever seen. She was also generous enough to send me a Facebook message after the Wednesday night showing of The Overnighters, listing some of her festival favorites so far: The Winding Stream, Happy Valley (today at 3:45), The Overnighters, Besa: The Promise (Saturday at 2:45), A Story of Children in Film and, of course, Happy Christmas (Saturday at 9).

I was also able to buttonhole Jason Shawhan for some fest chat after I left last night's showing of Manakamana. Shawhan, of course, is a film critic for the Scene as well as the man with the mic in his hand introducing the midnight movies at The Belcourt — he's so good in the role that he's also been on hand at the fest to announce the flicks in the Graveyard Shift category. He mentioned Graveyard filcks like You and the Night, The Congress and The Voice Thief among his favorites as well as giving high praise to Happy Christmas — he even shouted out co-starring actress Lena Dunham on his Facebook page, which made me anxious to hear what he was thinking about the rest of the fest.

Some crazy East Side traffic made me a little late to Manakamana last night, but finding musician/producer Tony Youngblood sitting in the second row, I settled in to watch what must be one of the most unique documentaries in the entire fest. This film came highly recommended and now I know why.

Manakamana is set entirely inside a cable car, rising up and racing down a steep mountainside in the Trisuli Valley in Nepal. The car takes pilgrims 1302 meters above sea level to the titular mountaintop temple, which is a sacred site dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Bhagwati — it's said the goddess will grant a wish to anyone willing to make the journey.

One gets the impression that a camera and a mic have been hidden on the car, and that the subjects in the seat opposite aren't aware they're being filmed. In truth, co-directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez spent months getting to know villagers in the area and "cast" their film with passengers that could effectively "play themselves" in front of the filmmakers. Spray and Velez had to be present as they shot on 16mm film using 400-foot magazines — just enough to cover one trip up the mountain or one trip down. The end of each leg of the journey is followed by an imperceptible fade to black before the car comes swinging back out onto into the sky above the valley on its return trip, emerging from the darkness of the terminal with new and sometimes surprising passengers. The effect is like riding in the car and never getting off — an endless loop, up and down.

If one still shot for two hours inside a cable car sounds boring, you haven't seen Manakamana. Of course, the film is very slow, but it's more precise to call it languid or even hypnotic. Floating high above the valley, the first two sets of passengers don't say one word to each other; the film is 30 minutes in before the three elderly brides of a common husband emerge from the terminal and begin chatting up a storm. These three joke with one another, snipe at one another and finish each other's sentences like only close family members might. They bring the first snap of life to the piece, and they also introduce one of the film's major themes, recalling memories of a time when a trip from the village to the top of the mountain might take almost a week. They point into the distance at all the houses being built on the mountains. They observe that the present is very different from their past but insist that it's all a change for the better.

All variety of passengers head to and from the temple. Teenagers talk about their band and writing songs about the forests below. It seems they have a show later that evening at a local bar, but are tired of playing in bars. They use their digital cameras to take group photos and one of them wears a Black Sabbath t-shirt. Another trip finds a middle-aged woman and her elderly mother waiting till they are clear of the temple and the mountain before diving into a pair of Eskimo Pie ice cream bars. It's not long before the bars start to melt and the scene devolves into a hilarious slurping mess that's as funny to these passengers as it is to the theater audience. Another scene finds the camera literally staring at a goat's asshole for most of one leg of the trip. A mini-herd of the animals is tied up in the car. They jockey for position and panic every time the cable rumbles over a tower.

Each group of passengers is unique in its own way, but the film is even stronger in showing how all people everywhere are very much alike: Old folks talk about the old days, young folks are preoccupied with the now and the new. A pair of musicians endlessly tune the strings of their sarangis and it may as well be the stage at The Family Wash. The song they play is a world away from the mountain music of Tennessee, but it doesn't really sound so different. Almost every passenger mentions how lovely the corn in the field in the valley looks, and it is lovely. So is this film.

Today I'm planning to see Whitey: The United States of America v. James J. Bulger — a documentary about the trial of the infamous gangster and FBI informant. It screens at 12:15. Also on my list is Vic + Flo Saw a Bear. This film has a good buzz at the fest and it tells the story of a pair of lesbian ex-cons trying to go legit in the backwoods of Quebec. Its final showing is tonight at 5:45.

There are no Red Carpet appearances scheduled for tonight, but it's just as well. In less than 48 hours, the festival will be over. Now's the time to catch a flick or two before the whole shebang fades to black.

See you at the fest!

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