Although they take very different approaches to the eco-documentary, DamNation and Manakamana are both immersive experiences. In the former, one of the directors is the narrator and an onscreen character. In the latter, the directors stay off-camera (or behind the camera) as they turn a simple journey into a slowly unraveling ethnographic mystery.
DamNation opens with a recording of FDR, who acclaims the then-new Hoover Dam and denounces those of "narrow vision" who reject major public-works projects. But the movie's main voice belongs to co-director and cinematographer Ben Knight, who shares the prankish spirit of activists who paint cracks on massive dam walls. Knight and co-director Travis Rummel take to their kayaks to explore a dam system where they're decidedly not welcome, and hide in the woods to videorecord the demolition of a dam whose end was officially off-limits to the press.
The two filmmakers invoke the history of Earth First and the Monkey Wrench Gang, both of which engaged in sabotage against projects they considered environmentally unsound. But the contemporary anti-dam movement is gentler, perhaps because it has partially won the debate. Dams are disappearing, especially in those areas where salmon runs are now seen as more important than hydroelectric power and flood control: Maine and the Pacific Northwest. (DamNation is playing this week in Portland, Ore., before opening in New York on May 9.)
Despite having "nation" in its title, the movie spends less time in the rest of the country. The filmmakers recount a late-1950s expedition through doomed Glen Canyon, an archaeologically significant Utah/Arizona gorge drowned to create Lake Powell in the 1960s. But this section of the movie is more wistful than contentious. It includes the reminiscences of now-94-year-old Katie Lee, who shares nude photos of herself, artfully posed on the rock walls.
The huge reservoirs that supply ever-thirsty California are less likely to disappear than smaller dams in rainier regions. The filmmakers don't really address that issue, and never offer a comprehensive overview of the cases for and against dams. (Some prominent supporters declined to be interviewed.) The movie's style is as discursive and scattershot as Knight's narration. Even strong anti-dam arguments, such as the silting that eventually makes the edifices useless, are mentioned only in passing. DamNation would rather be where the fun is: rafting newly liberated whitewater, or watching an activist rappel down an immense concrete wall, paintbrush in hand.
Set in Nepal, Manakamana is considerably more austere and conceptual. It documents, in real time, 11 trips on a cable-car system that leads from a valley to a mountaintop temple. Co-director Pacho Velez shot each passage sitting across from his subjects in one of the dangling gondolas. He used 16 mm film cartridges that lasted about 10 minutes, the same length as one journey to or from the temple. The soundtrack consists only of nature sounds, creaking machinery and noises made by the passengers. A product of Harvard University's Sensory Ethnography Lab, the movie stresses experience over explication.
Velez and co-director Stephanie Spray, who edited the film, make implicit connections between watching and appearing in Manakamana. Both viewer and rider are seated, somewhat fidgety, as they observe a picture in motion: lush green slopes as the gondola (and camera) traverse them. Each trip is a minimovie, stitched together seamlessly into the larger one when the car enters the blackness of one of the terminals. (It's the same trick Hitchcock played in the seemingly one-take Rope, where every edit occurred in the dark.)
The first trip, by a man and a little boy, proceeds in nervous silence; it suggests that the movie will be forbiddingly taciturn. But the mood changes during subsequent rides, some of which are comic. We see that the pilgrims include both traditional musicians and Nepalese hard-rockers, as well as American tourists and a pair of older women who've just been introduced to ice cream on a stick. We also begin to suspect what happens at the temple. Manakamana doesn't answer any questions, yet makes its point: Nepal, like the rest of our planet, is a picturesque but far from peaceable kingdom.