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Still from "Manakamana", the most recent film out of Harvard's Sensory Ethnography LabCourtesy of Dogwoof Films

Harvard's semi-secret lab that pumps out great documentaries

The lesser known Sensory Ethnography Lab is an experimental hotbed for docs that don't deal in ‘talking heads’

On their website, the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL for short) say their work "opposes the traditions of art that are not deeply infused with the real," and it's hard to argue with that. Formed at Harvard in 2006 by Lucien Castaing-Taylor as a collaboration between the university's Anthropology department and Visual and Environmental Studies department, the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) is less a lab and more of a grad school. It allows students space to create experimental, richly detailed works of non-fiction that capture the experience of being in a specific place at a specific time, moving the medium of documentary away from its traditional "talking heads" approach (remember Bansky sitting in the dark?) and into something more observational, better suited to documenting reality than presenting facts.

Since their creation, the SEL has produced films as radical and exciting as recent Golden Globe winner Leviathan – their breakout hit from 2012 about life on a fishing boat, which made people feel seasick – to the simple joy of People's Park, in which the director is pushed around a park in China in a wheelchair filming everything she sees in one long, unbroken take. Each film's camerawork is simple, quietly observing events as they unfold, the sound design is constant and immersive, and there are no interviews to speak of, with any dialogue between the "characters" accidentally overheard rather than intentionally extracted. And it's this unobtrusive approach to filmmaking that makes the SEL's work so vital: it allows the subject the time and space to exist, which is exactly what makes it so real. 

As their latest work, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez's Manakaman, is released on DVD, we take a look back at some of the extraordinary work the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab have created over the past seven years.

CHAIQIAN (2008) – J.P. Sniadecki

J.P. Sniadecki's Chaiqian (which translates as Demolition) observes a community of workers on a demolition site in Southwest China, due to leave when the work is done, and the locals, who have to live with the changes to their city. Sniadecki spends a lot of time with the workers, observing them as they work and relax, but he also watches some local BMXers as they ride a soon-to-be demolished ramp for the last time. It's an interesting contrast, and one that adds political weight to a portrait of a city whose community is dying with the rubble.

7 QUEENS (2009) – Verena Paravel

During the long walk under the tracks of the 7 train in New York, from Queens to Manhattan, Verena Paravel filmed her interactions with the people she met along the way: an Indian cab driver, a Chinese couple eating ice cream, some guys in Queens dancing to an iPod, and many others. Paravel captures the cultural diversity of New York City through these brief encounters, listening to what they have to say - sometimes in English, sometimes not, sometimes drowned out by the trains overhead - before moving on to someone totally different, right around the corner.

SWEETGRASS (2009) – Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Ilisa Barbash

A documentary western, Sweetgrass follows a group of cowboys as they lead their sheep up a long, treacherous mountain trail in Montana for the summer, and as the terrain gets tougher to navigate, the job gets more stressful. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash capture intimate moments with the men as they relax, usually on their own, and never for long, which are contrasted with extreme wide shots of the picturesque, expansive landscape they're traversing. "I'd rather enjoy these mountains than hate them" one emotional cowboy says to his mother over the phone. It might be a tough job, but it's easy to see why people do it.

AS LONG AS THERE'S BREATH (2009) – Stephanie Spray

Stephanie Spray's As Long As There's Breath observes the daily routine of a family in a Nepalese village following the absence of their son, who has supposedly run away to live in a communist camp. The women of the family are forced to work long hours on hot days in the fields, and Spray documents the tedium of their laborious work through unedited, never-ending long takes. But it's their charisma that's most interesting, and the casually hilarious exchanges they share about armpit hair, vibrators and their lazy husbands are a defiant relief from the difficulty of their lives.

THE YELLOW BANK (2010) – J.P. Sniadecki

Shot during a total solar eclipse in Shanghai in 2009, Sniadecki's The Yellow Bank observes as a city stops to watch. Sniadecki captures the wonder of the crowds entirely through sound, with gasps and muttering heard in the background, while the camera focuses on the city, finding various vantage points to watch as the light comes and goes - the highlight being the extended view of the Shanghai skyline, electronically lit in the middle of the day, as it slowly emerges from the darkness.

FOREIGN PARTS (2010) – Verena Paravel & J.P. Sniadecki

Set in a back street junkyard in the shadow of the New York Mets' stadium in Queens, Foreign Parts is about the lives of the people forced to work there, struggling to earn a living as the business dries up. Speaking to a number of different people, from an elderly man fighting to save the yard from demolition to a woman sleeping in her car with a knife to protect herself because the police won't come, Paravel and Sniadecki have crafted a deeply troubling portrait of a forgotten neighbourhood left to fend for itself.

ON BROADWAY (2011) – Aryo Danusiri

Forced out of their premises in 2008, the community of a New York mosque had to relocate to a rented public space down the street. Made up of six long, static shots from the corner of the room, Aryo Danusiri's On Broadway observes as the huge space is prepared for Friday sermons, as the sermons take place, and as the room empties at the end. Why they were evicted in the first place is never addressed, but as the room is cleared, table tennis tables are set up for the next timeslot, making the absurdity of a 1000-strong Muslim community forced to worship in a make-shift mosque painfully apparent.

PEOPLE'S PARK (2012) – J.P. Sniadecki and Libbie D. Cohn

A 75 minute unbroken trip through a park in China, Sniadecki and Libbie D. Cohn's People's Park is probably the closest anyone has come to true documentary realism. The film, shot by Cohn as Sniadecki pushed her around the sprawling park in a wheelchair, captures what must be thousands of people as they go about their lives: eating, walking, dancing, talking, reading. Some wave at the camera, others look at it furiously, but it never lingers on one person longer than another. Everyone is equal in People's Park, and these fleeting encounters are more meaningful because of it.

LEVIATHAN (2012) – Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel

Shot with GoPro cameras strategically placed around a fishing trawler off the east coast of America, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel's Leviathan documents the horrendous daily routine on this boat, from the fishermen battling to reel in the nets in a storm to the flock of seagulls fighting for scraps thrown overboard. As the cameras fly around in the chaos, some falling in the ocean, others somehow attaching themselves to seagulls, the lo-res digital images and the digital crackle of the sound combine in an ominous, overwhelming way, creating one of the most immersive (and nauseating) docs of the digital era.

MANAKAMANA (2013) – Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez

Continuing her work in Nepal, Stephanie Spray and co-director Pacho Velez return with Manakamana, a series of static portraits of people travelling to and from a mountain-top temple by cable car. Two women messily eating ice cream, three metalheads (and a kitten) taking selfies, and a terrified herd of goats are among the many inhabitants of the cable car as it makes its ten minute journey, and Spray and Velez capture something unexpectedly and profoundly human from these seemingly mundane scenarios, be it the secret loving glances between a man and his grandson, or a woman smiling bashfully at the camera.

Manakamana is available on DVD and VOD February 9