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‘Manakamana’: Gazing at those who are gazing

The lens never moves as “Manakamana” camerobserves travelers ascending descending cable car Nepal. | CINEMA GUILD

The lens never moves as the “Manakamana” camera observes travelers ascending and descending in a cable car in Nepal. | CINEMA GUILD

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Cinema Guild presents a film directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez. In Nepali and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 118 minutes. No MPAA rating. Now showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center

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Updated: July 1, 2014 6:10AM

‘Manakamana” is an oddly original travelogue that observes travelers in a cable car. Filmmakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez chronicle 11 ascents and descents, each lasting about 10 unedited minutes. This contemplative exercise lets you imagine analogies with making and watching films anywhere.

Nepal is the locale — only identified in the end credits when Spray and Velez thank the cable car company. Spray knows some of the 19 subjects from her anthropological fieldwork and translates the Nepali conversations. It sounds like there’s a goddess in a temple where animals are sacrificed to grant wishes. That’s where the pilgrims and tourists are headed. Four skittish goats ride up together for a one-way trip.

Like the seated passengers on a ride, we sit in the theater. Unlike us, they turn to look out windows on their left and right. The filmmakers sit together on the opposite bench. Spray aims her mic and Velez runs his 16mm camera, locked on a tripod between them. The lens always aims straight ahead, never panning to show us what the passengers see out there.

The resulting real-time portraits are insets in a passing landscape. The mountain vista looks like footage projected as backgrounds in Hollywood films when characters ride in cars or trains.

Despite our narrow angle on Nepal, “Manakamana” peers into lives at close range. In one episode, two young women sit together at a tacit distance. One face offers a micro-saga of uncertain concern. The other betrays an inner storm. Unexpectedly, they talk and it all changes.

“Manakamana” recalls Godfrey Reggio’s “Visitors” and Abbas Kiarostami’s “Shirin,” two reflexive art films that also presented viewers with other viewers. Produced by the co-directors of last year’s “Leviathan,” this is more transcendental travel via the Sensory Ethnography Laboratory at Harvard University.

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