My favorite film at last year’s New York Film Festival was Leviathan, a jaw-dropping experimental documentary from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab that used several small, durable digital cameras to turn a commercial fishing boat into a gargantuan aquatic bloodbath. So naturally, the SEO’s latest offering shot to the top tier of my most anticipated titles at this year’s NYFF once it was announced as a co-presentation of the Views From the Avant-Garde and Motion Portraits sidebars. And while Manakamana lacks the visual fireworks that propelled Leviathan, its repeated journey back and forth over the foothills of Nepal proves well worth taking. Filmmakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez document eleven rides in the cable car that carries worshippers up to and down from the film’s eponymous temple. Spray and Velez capture each ride in a single take, pinning the passengers against the flat surface of the car’s window while through the glass the landscape rushes past in depth. Unlike Leviathan, Manakamana seems to be less interested in abstraction than in using its structuralist frame as a means of portraiture. Each of the subjects reacts to the camera differently, from the silent man and boy who accompany us on our first ride, to a pair of laughing old women who have trouble eating their rapidly melting popsicles. Though it may sound austere, Manakamana is the SEL’s most inviting, affectionate film yet, engaging with its human subjects more any of the lab’s previous work.
The ever-prolific Hong Sang-soo matches Manakamana’s warmth with his latest feature, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon. Known for his endless riffing on tales of romantic dysfunction between soju-drunk filmmakers, professors, and students, Hong remains relatively unknown outside circles of devoted cinephiles. Yet while his films often encounter hit-or-miss luck, stateside distribution-wise (such is the plight of the workaholic; see also: Johnnie To), his work exudes a low-key friendliness all too rare in art house cinema today. Hong’s sense of humor doesn’t really have a western analog; much of it is based on a formally strict sense of etiquette that no one ever seems quite capable of following. But many of his best jokes defy cultural explanation (case in point: a scene in Nobody’s Daughter in which a minor character wanders to the edge of the frame and remarks on the scenery, “cool flag!” apropos of nothing). Yet Hong’s films are also sad in a way that builds upon familiarity, both within the films themselves and outside of them. Inconspicuous camera angles become weighted with meaning through repetition and variation. Melancholy voice-overs and weather patterns that reflect characters’ emotional states—devices often dismissed as clichés—are deployed with uncommon sensitivity. Each of these touches comes to life with an assured sense of purpose in Hong’s latest film, making this empathetic character piece a wonderful place for newcomers to enter Hong’s cinematic universe.
At one point midway through At Berkeley, Frederick Wiseman’s epic [length] state-of-education address, a tenured professor cues a New Yorker cartoon in her power-point presentation in which an angry man, towering over a cat and litter box, chastises the cat, “Never, ever, think outside the box.” The professor encourages the students to disregard the man’s advice, citing her own groundbreaking cancer research. She does, however, acknowledge the fact that her position is now that of the man rather than the cat. At Berkeley’s organizing principle is precisely this tension between authority and creative thinking. Over the course of a marathon four hours, Wiseman hopscotches between lectures, student rallies, and administrative conferences, patiently diagramming the ideological and pragmatic skirmishes being fought on the battlefield of a historically progressive university, now facing major funding cuts from the state. That At Berkeley is a nuanced portrait that avoids easy answers should hardly be surprising, coming from cinema’s most sophisticated institutional thinker. To watch a Wiseman film is to become acutely aware of the shortcoming of most “issue” docs, which engage in shouting instead of looking, broadsiding instead of investigation. There are no Good Guys or Bad Guys At Berkeley, just an intellectual community struggling to figure out how adventurous thinking and institutional structure can coexist.
The 51st New York Film Festival runs from September 27 to October 13 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.