David Reviews Sherief Elkatsha’s Cairo Drive and Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez’s Manakamana [PIFF 2014 Review]

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Two features opening this weekend at the Portland International Film Festival each register in the broad category of non-fiction movies, landing closer to cinema verité than traditional documentary. They both have in common an emphasis on various modes of transportation, the means by which people (and their possessions, including animals) get around and through inhospitable environments to reach their destinations more quickly than merely traveling by foot. Beyond that shared focus though, Cairo Drive (from Egypt, obviously) and Manakamana (not quite so obviously from Nepal) could hardly be more different. The former successfully attempts to replicate the frenetic chaos and clamor of street traffic in one of the world’s most ancient metropolitan sprawls, while the latter offers a much more tranquil and contemplative experience soaring via aerial cable car over the majestic green foothills (we’d call them mountains in North America) of the Himalayas.

Though the city that Cairo Drive portrays is arguably as timeless and mythic as any great urban complex one might choose to name, events over the past two years have thrust Cairo into the international spotlight more prominently than at any time in most readers’ living memory. The series of social revolutions that began across the Arab world in late 2010, collectively known as the “Arab Spring,” continue to roil political and cultural institutions throughout the Middle East. Naturally, when upheavals on this scale take place, one of cinema’s essential functions is to get cameras near the action to document the rifts and currents from both the macro and the micro perspectives. But this particular project began back in 2009, when the Egyptian government then under President Hosni Mubarak was regarded as a bulwark of stability in the region. Perhaps director Sherief Elkatsha was acting on inside knowledge or a strong intuition that change was on its way, or maybe his timing was simply fortuitous, transforming what starts off as a mildly whimsical survey of Cairo’s confusing knot of vehicular congestion into something much more compelling and vital. In the four years between 2009 and 2012 when the project wrapped up, Egypt went through a profound transition from oppressive military dictatorship to a tumultuous, tentative democracy, culminating in popular elections that pushed out the old regime and (temporarily) installed Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in the corridors of power.

Despite the temptation to shift direction to chronicle the historic political crisis, Elkatsha maintains his focus on the action taking place at street level, allowing Cairo’s inhabitants to speak candidly for themselves (usually in Arabic, sometimes in English, occasionally flowing freely from one  language to the other even in the same sentence), while including an amazing array of visuals and sounds from all different angles. Against a backdrop of eternal monuments (the Giza pyramids) and iconic images of the recent past (the occupation of Tahrir Square), jammed-up streetscapes display impressively thick and claustrophobia-inducing snarls of cars, trucks, motorcycles, scooters, donkey carts, and pedestrians, all working at cross-purposes toward each other and indifferent to any kind of cooperative effort that goes beyond simply making sure they don’t get run over by any object faster or heavier than they are. And there’s a good reason for much of that jadedness, as we learn of the dismal failure of previous efforts by governing authorities to impose order and streamline the arteries of traffic. Almost in defiance of such notions, we see all sorts of risky traveling behaviors, some of it quite comical, but sadly, not everyone makes it through  the scrum unscathed. With the continued unrest and further escalations of the ideological conflicts hinted at throughout many of the conversations we drop in on, I couldn’t help but be troubled by the thought of what misfortunes might have befallen some of the people we get to know  in Cairo Drive after the cameras stopped rolling. That’s probably just me projecting my own neurotic suburbanite tendencies to worry and my ever-accruing preference for order and predictability in life whenever it can be found – the denizens of Cairo are too busy just getting where they need to be, and they ain’t got time for that.

If the constant tension and cramped conditions of Cairo Drive seem a bit unbearable, or at least call for some kind of cinematic palate cleanser afterward, Manakamana may just provide the perfect change of pace. The premise of the film is utterly simple – mount a 16mm camera inside one of the sky trams that shuttle pilgrims over 1000 meters of altitude in about 10 minutes to the top of a ridge, upon which sits an auspicious but decaying temple dedicated to the Hindu goddess Bhagwati. Over the course of eleven transits, the camera records the occupants, doing whatever it is they do to pass the time. The trips alternate between ascents in the first half and descents in the second, but the blackout periods, where the car goes through a turnaround at each of the terminal points, provide the perfect opportunity to slip in edits, thus creating the illusion that the whole film was done in a single take.

The unblinking eye of the camera and the steadiness of its gaze gives viewers in the theater seat a lot of time to cast their gaze in various directions. Sometimes we scrutinize the verdant landscape and occasional structures built along the mountain slopes, at other times the wisps of cloud and fog through which we virtually glide. Mostly though, it’s the faces of the (mostly) Nepali passengers, the colorful attire, the variety of objects they bring with them, that draw and sustain our attention. We’re also privileged to listen in on their conversations (at least, from those who feel like talking – there are a few taciturn riders as well), which though mundane and (seemingly) unscripted are filled with the stuff of life. As Manakamana proceeds, some of the prevailing Western notions of what life might be like in this rugged, landlocked society are subtly challenged and given the chance to expand as we see the impacts of globalism and other forms of cultural exchange. And given such a unique and sensitive format to preserve these impressions, as fleeting and inconsequential as they may be, it’s quite surprising how compelling the film remains upon rewatch. I’ve sat through it twice now and find it warmly humorous, affirming and a source of fascination in both the viewing and in reflecting upon it afterward. My only regret is that I have only had access to a screener copy, without benefit of seeing it on the big screen. If I was anywhere in the vicinity of Portland this weekend or next, I’d gladly pay admission to take the trip to Manakamana all over again.

Cairo Drive will play at the World Trade Center Theater on Sunday, Feb. 9 at 1 PM and Saturday, February 15 at 9 PM.

Manakamana will play at the World Trade Center Theater on Saturday, Feb. 8 at 8:30 PM and Saturday, Feb. 15 at 3:15 PM