Toward the end of Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana (2013), an elderly mother and her daughter enjoy fast-melting ice cream bars while returning from their pilgrimage to a hilltop temple in rural Nepal. “We’re like children still learning how to eat,” the younger woman comments, as much to her mother as to the camera.
As the ice cream drips, they alternate between teasing one another and staring silently out the windows of their cable car, marveling at the surroundings. The film is built entirely from such journeys, spanning a range of social arrangements: a grandfather and a small boy, three elderly female friends, a group of goats en route to their sacrificial slaughter. Each of the film’s 11 scenes is comprised of a single shot lasting only as long as it takes to ride the cable car to or from the temple. The structural contrivance produces moments both profound and understated, repetitive yet utterly unpredictable.
With Velez’s 16mm camera locked in place, the viewer’s gaze may drift between the foregrounded subjects and the forests, villages, or corn fields receding into the background. The glass encasement produces a neat frame-within-a-frame, as if a separate film is playing just for us. These nested layers of viewing create an elegant meta-cinematic gesture, one of Manakamana’s many achievements. This self-reflexivity avoids anxiety about the crisis of the image, instead offering an optimistic, affirmative comment on cinema and collective experience.
Manakamana is the latest feature film to emerge out of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (“SEL”), which has produced a remarkable run of documentaries since its founding in 2006. The SEL’s integration of aesthetic experimentation and academic rigor landed comprehensive surveys at the Whitney Biennial and The Film Society of Lincoln Center this spring. The exhibitions included widely acclaimed feature films Leviathan (2012), Foreign Parts (2010), and Sweetgrass (2009), alongside many shorter works by faculty and students.
The films are far from homogeneous. Yet many shared characteristics link the projects, including the extended duration of images; an attention to nonhuman environments, animals, and machines; and a recurring tension between realism and abstraction.
Aryo Danusiri, a SEL PhD student whose films explore Islamic ritual and crowds, demonstrates some of these shared interests. “We are always talking about the long take,” he says. Danusiri’s film On Broadway (2011), included in the Whitney program, documents Friday prayers at a Mosque renting space from a Chinese cultural center in Lower Manhattan. The film is 62 minutes and only four shots, all from a single fixed position. Danusiri describes these long takes as the core of observational cinema, a visual building block that is also an essential research method: “I’m very curious if I have this kind of infrastructure in the film, what will happen—what kind of encounter will it produce, and what kind of knowledge can my film produce as a result.”
Danusiri further describes On Broadway as a film about a mosque in which space becomes the main character. His emphasis on the built environment reflects the SEL’s broader attention to the nonhuman, be it architecture, environment, animal, or technology. In a recent Film Comment essay, Irina Leimbacher posits that the SEL is pioneering a kind of post-humanist cinema, best exemplified by Leviathan.
This kinetic portrait of deep sea fishing was filmed largely on GoPro waterproof cameras, forgoing a romantic portrait of sea life in favor of a disorienting collage of fish heads, fish blood, seabirds, and nets flying in and out of the water. Codirected by Sensory Ethnography Lab founder Lucien Castaing-Taylor and faculty member Véréna Paravel, the film doesn’t merely embed with the crew—it penetrates the material fabric of the fishing operation through its tools, surroundings, and motions.
Leviathan also rides a fine line between intelligible documentary and pure abstraction, a tension present in several other works, including SEL sound designer Ernst Karel’s audio composition Swiss Mountain Transport Systems. In this 68-minute piece, field recordings of gondolas and chairlifts are pushed beyond their contexts into the realm of musique concrète. Following an exhibition at Lincoln Center, Karel referenced moments of the composition according to their various scenes. Yet it’s difficult to accept the work in such representational or indexical terms. More convincing is the project’s official description as “acoustic glimpses of a vast surrounding landscape inhabited by humans and other animals.”
As Danusiri insists, any method of research will have tradeoffs—the Sensory Ethnography Lab does not mandate attention to human discourse or labor, nor to documentary verisimilitude. (Whether voiceover, graphics, or archival footage might be tolerated is another matter.) Instead, their growing filmography demonstrate an open-ended commitment to vivid, vexing documents that blur the boundaries between art and research.