Slamdance 2023 Interview: Kimi Takesue on the Wandering Eye in “Onlookers”

When behind the camera for “Onlookers,” Kimi Taksue could find herself as intrigued by what all the other people with cameras were taking pictures of, if not more, than what she was traveling in Laos.

“I actually am really interested in the awkwardness of travel, the uncertainties,” said Takesue. “It’s like a photographer who has a camera and feels compelled, like they really need to take a picture, but they don’t really know what to take a picture of. You can almost see the inner workings of that person’s mind, like “Is that a good picture? Should I take that? And [there’s] just the empathy that I feel for that person.”

Takesue made a point of not being so deliberate in what she would shoot, though after previous expeditions such as her 2013 mid-length feature “Looking for Adventure” about her travails in Peru, and the 2010 feature “Where Are You Taking Me” in which she showed a side of Uganda that is rarely seen in the West. By setting up a tripod all over Laos, Takesue captures the beauty of the Southeast Asian country that has drawn so many visitors like herself from around the world, with its natural wonders such as the waterfalls connected to the Mekong River to Buddhist temples that fascinate with their rituals. But when everyone around the filmmaker is reaching for their camera, “Onlookers” questions whether they’re actually taking the time to see anything, particularly when their presence appears to be encroaching on the culture they were excited to observe.

Bereft of subtitles, “Onlookers” clears the way for audiences to really engage with what they’re witnessing as Takesue presents a series of scenes filmed from a stationary position that give as much as the viewer is willing to put in, with a portrait gradually emerging of how a place, even as far removed from a modern urban center as Laos, can be reshaped by those who visit the region and their money can often be accompanied by a certain impunity. “Don’t Smoke” signs in public parks can be seen disregarded and the impact of living in an area where people are constantly passing through can be seen on the faces of the younger generation that your eye will occasionally gravitate towards in the frame, yet Takesue walks a fine line allowing for one to judge for themselves what they are seeing while gently injecting her own sense of discovery and good humor in curating the experience.

On the eve of the Slamdance Film Festival where “Onlookers” will be premiering – and be made available to watch by anyone virtually from January 23rd through 29th after its physical bow – the director spoke about her enchanting new film, the freedom of going into a project without a plan and how individual places reveal the world about the people living in them.

How did this come about?

I’m really led by curiosity, and for me, documentary at its best is really about getting to have new, rich life experiences. Originally, I was interested in Southeast Asia and I had always wanted to travel to Laos [where] I heard the people were really welcoming. There is a really tranquil, slow pace of life [there] and I knew it was a country that was undergoing a lot of rapid change in terms of globalization and development that’s happening throughout Southeast Asia, so I really wanted to go there sooner rather than later. I really didn’t have any set agenda, I just traveled there with a camera and responded to what unfolded during my journey.

I was struck by the impact of tourism on Laos, so that is part of the film, [both] my observations of that and my own participation within that. But really the film is exploring so many other dimensions of travel as well, trying to explore the paradox of travel and why are people traveling these really far distances to try and replicate what’s familiar? What are people really seeking when they travel and why do we travel? It’s also exploring a lot of the pleasures of travel and the ways in which it can be just so meaningful to really regain sight and vision and the ability to reflect on one’s life.

You are part of a group tour at times – is that influential as far as seeing how the country is typically presented to tourists?

Obviously, I was on a standard tourist path or itinerary and because I’m traveling alone and able to do things at my own pace – on the one hand, I am going along the standard itinerary in the sense of the main places that are visited – Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Four Thousand Islands and I’m going to some of the famous sites in terms of the temples and the waterfalls. But I’m also just trying to deviate off of that path as well into the parallel roads and the back roads, just trying to have other experiences that are more about interacting with people in their daily life. It’s that combination of traveling along that standard tourist path and then going off having these kinds of interactions and observing daily life in its natural rhythms.

How much intention is there when you’re filming?

I’m really not thinking about a final film because I don’t know if that’s possible as I’m filming. I’m really just responding in the moment. One of the things that’s exhilarating for me about this kind of filmmaking is I actually am living in the moment and present and responsive to what’s happening as opposed to projecting into the future what is this, what’s this going to be, and how am I going to structure this? I really am responding to what is of interest.

There’s obviously certain themes that are arising [as I’m filming]. I am just very fundamentally interested in what the possibilities and the limitations are of different cross-cultural encounters and in the context of tourism, the ways that some of those interactions can be quite limited or superficial. But I have a lot of aesthetic interests as well in terms of the stylistic approach in finding these compositions while I’m traveling that I’m interested in visually and so much of it is about finding these interesting fixed frames because everything is a tableaux in this film. They’re all long takes, so it’s finding what the excitement is that unfolds within that frame spontaneously, and how does the movement of bodies and choreography unfold? What is the color and the light? There’s a precision to everything because the frame itself has a meaning in terms of what I’m looking at — for example, as tourists photograph monks in their daily procession, [you’re seeing] the disruptive nature of tourism — and all of these elements have to cohere. Each frame is a mini film unto itself unfolding.

One of the provocative ideas of this seemed to be how living in an environment with so many visitors is affecting the younger generation of Laotians. Did that come to the fore pretty early?

I’m originally from Hawaii, so I’m from a place that’s dependent on tourism. There is always that very difficult relationship because tourism is needed for the economic health at this point in time of the state and the ways that people then have to accommodate and serve tourists is always really complex. In the film you see, particularly in this place Vientiane, which became known as a backpacker haven where backpackers from around the world would congregate and party, there was a real lack of respect for the Laotian traditions. People would be dressed [inappropriately], exposing themselves in ways that were really offensive to Laotians and introduced of a lot of drugs into the town [in ways] that really did alter the town.

There is that one scene where you see this group of westerners that are about to go tubing and there’s that obnoxious quality to them [in] how they’re all dressed and they’re asking for a cheap deal from the local guy and you see this young Laotian boy who looks like maybe he’s the grandson of the guy who’s renting the tubes, watching the backpackers and inevitably [you start to think] what is the impact and influence on that little boy? He’s already helping rent those tubes and being exposed to this kind of behavior, so there has been a real impact on that younger generation and it’s definitely one of the issues that’s raised in the film.

The way that I took the opening scene was the powerful idea of the Laotians on being the side of their own road. Did that immediately come to you as a main idea?

What that reflects about Laotian culture is the fact that every morning at 5:30, there are people that are preparing rice, sitting by the side of the road to give alms to the monks and what that says about the generosity of spirit of the culture was something that really, really struck me. The attention is so often on the spectacle of the monks because they’re seen often by foreigners as the symbols of Laotian culture. It’s so beautiful to see them in these vibrant saffron robes and in that procession, but I was even more struck by the people congregating there together in the morning throughout the country. I was so profoundly moved by that I wanted to frame the film in that way and what that says about Laotian culture and that patience, that ability to be present, and to slow down. When you contrast it with the busyness of our culture and the preoccupations with spending time well, the fact that people sit and wait and congregate and give this offering every morning I think is very powerful.

You strike the right balance I feel, but how much attention did you want to give to the monks when there is that fear of fetishizing them from an outsider’s perspective?

That’s a really important point in that I too am a tourist struck by a certain element of exoticism, of cultural difference. I am not someone who is completely apart from that and the film is looking at some of that tension and vacillation that is happening within me as the filmmaker, on one hand providing some critique about the ways in which culture can be commodified and made into spectacle, but I’m also participating in that. That cultural difference is part of the pleasure and the joy of travel and of experiencing new places and there’s no way that one can be entirely separate from that, nor do I think you should be, but it is that balance and that ability to self-reflect and be mindful of how is one engaging with that difference and considering it that is very much part of the film.

What’s it like getting to the finish line with it and premiering at Slamdance?

I’m so excited to be returning to Slamdance. I had two films at Slamdance over 20 years ago, [one of which was] “Heaven’s Crossroad,” an impressionistic journey through Vietnam that has some parallels to this film and won the Spirit of Slamdance Award in 2002 and there’s something so nice about returning. They have this new section called Breakouts, which is for more experienced filmmakers who have what they call a more distinct cinematic or artistic vision, and it’s so great to return after making a body of work that’s been in this realm but it really is a film that embodies the spirit of independence. It is a film I made while traveling alone, and it tested me in so many ways creatively — and physically. It was a very challenging film to make by myself as I’m heaving equipment across the country and sweating profusely and there is so much that is unknown.

When I didn’t have a set agenda, there is a lot of uncertainty in the process of making it and finishing it and I do feel it’s a film that I think is very accessible for a viewer, but when we are living in such a distracted time, I feel like a film like this is even more important. We need as people to cultivate the ability to look and listen carefully and this is a film that invites the viewer on a journey that I think provides a lot of sensory immersive stimulation, but there’s a lot of reward offered if the viewer does really go on this ride and open themselves up to the experience of this form of deep looking and listening on this journey through Laos.

“Onlookers” will screen at the Slamdance Film Festival at the Treasure Mountain Inn on January 21st at 3:15 pm and January 23rd at 11 am. It will also be available online through the duration of the festival.

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