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Manley on Mana

One-time Durham resident returns home with a globetrotting film

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From the vantage point of one envious North Carolinian, former Durham resident Roger Manley is living the dream. I spoke with him last week from his home in Paris, where he relocated five years ago to begin work on Mana: Beyond Belief with his friend and collaborator Roger Friedman. "My French is still pretty pitiful," Manley says. "The first year was spent scouting locations around the world. The second was spent filming and the third was spent editing. Only in the last year or so have I had more time to hang out in the city."

On Thursday night, the fruit of his Parisian sojourn will be shown at 10:45 p.m., with both Manley and Friedman in attendance. Mana is a film about sacred relics of all kinds, and how they gain or lose that je ne sais quoi that makes them special. Actually, Manley, a specialist in folklore who was the curator of N.C. State's Gallery of Art and Design, knew the word for it. Polynesian in origin, "mana" translates roughly as "power object" or the thing that "makes matter matter," according to the film's extensive Web site at www.mana-the-movie.com.

Mana is quite a sly film, beginning as an earnest anthropological profile of a South Pacific shaman who explains the concept of mana. But Manley and Friedman keep pulling surprises out of their sleeves and the film veers into the droll, the exotic and the wacko over the course of its 92 minutes, finally concluding with a launch from a theme park-worthy contraption called the Forevertron, which must be seen to be believed.

The globetrotting film--which surely would have delighted such French structuralists as Claude Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes--finds interest in the unlikeliest of objects. We see the frenzy of the commodities market, "where the value is futuristic and inside the traders' heads," says Manley. We make a quick trip to New Mexico where we meet an enthusiast of low-riding Chevys, a perfectly ordinary guy who becomes the center of attention whenever he cruises downtown in his elevationally-adaptable automobile.

"We wanted to choose secular things and religious things, low-status and high-status, things from poor people and rich," Manley says. Indeed, the film makes a foray into one of the most ridiculed of American pop culture phenomena: Elvis impersonation. But what emerges through Manley and Friedman's lens is a sympathetically anthropological treatment of genuine spiritual fellowship found in the shadow of the King.

My own favorite stops in the Mana tour involve rectangular objects of a similar size that meet very different fates in the world of mana. First, there's a spectacular revelation of the truth behind a long-established Washington practice of legislators bestowing upon constituents American flags that have actually flown over the U.S. Capitol. With the unembarrassed assistance of North Carolina Congressman Howard Coble, Manley and Friedman show footage of an obscurely located flagpole where flags are hastily raised and lowered all day long.

"But we wanted to include things not only gaining mana, like the flags going up the pole, but to show things losing mana," Manley says. The filmmakers achieve this by demonstrating the sad fate of "The Man with the Golden Helmet," a painting long thought to be Rembrandt's. The object was one of intense veneration, the German equivalent of the "Mona Lisa," with throngs of tourists jostling for a view of the painting in its special alcove. But after the painting was conclusively proved not to be Rembrandt's in 1985, the painting's aura vanished. Mana shows the painting as it hangs today, forlornly unnoticed in a section of the museum reserved for Rembrandt's contemporaries.

These days, Manley and Friedman are kicking around new ideas and enjoying the expanding distribution of Mana: Beyond Belief. It's already been sold to Dutch, Swedish and Australian television, and last month, the duo showed the film at South by Southwest.

And now, at long last, Manley can work on his boulevard French. "I can order from a restaurant menu," he says, "but I can't sit around and talk about Sartre or anything."

But he'll surely be able to talk about mana.

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