Still image from Onlookers
Toggle caption Photo by Kimi Takesue

Kimi Takesue’s "Onlookers" to Screen at BAM’s Prismatic Ground FIlm Festival

Onlookers, the latest documentary film by Kimi Takesue, Video Professor in the Arts, Culture & Media department at Rutgers University–Newark, has been called a visually stunning meditation on travel and tourism in Laos, in Southeast Asia.

The work, Takesue’s 11th title to date, has been doing some traveling of its own.

In February Onlookers had its world premiere at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where it received the Grand Jury Prize–Honorable Mention as part of the event’s Breakouts Competition. The film premiered internationally at the prestigious Cinema du Reel documentary festival, at the Pompidou Center in Paris, in late March. And this Thursday (May 4), a local audience will witness the New York City premiere of Onlookers at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Prismatic Ground festival.

“It’s enormously gratifying and a huge honor to have Onlookers selected to screen at highly competitive and prestigious international film festivals and art venues such as Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM ), Slamdance, and Cinéma du Réel at the renowned Centre Pompidou in Paris,” said Takesue.

Filmed during two trips to Laos in 2017 and 2020, when Takesue traveled the country's dusty roads and meandered along its tranquil rivers, Onlookers weaves a series painterly tableaus as both observer and participant, capturing the playful and at times disruptive interweaving of locals and foreigners as tourists swarm to magnificent Buddhist temples, witness the ordered rituals of monks, and take in the country’s natural beauty before retreating and leaving Laotians to their daily lives.

I take pride in making independent, intimate, hand-crafted films that have a distinct perspective and exist outside of the commercial film industry.

The film has been celebrated for, among other things, its unique aesthetic, ethereal in its use of still-image filming technique, with long camera holds and subjects moving in and out of static frames. The result is similar to photographs or paintings coming alive.

For Takesue, it’s an exciting form of filmmaking requiring a keen eye and patience.

“I’m often interested in capturing the interplay between naturalism and stylization in filmic images, seeing how the spontaneity of life can play out within a fixed, carefully composed frame,” Takesue said.

Tourism has been a recurring thematic interest in Takesue’s work, because travel activates her senses and helps her see and appreciate everyday life around her, inspiring her to film. She was attracted to Laos because she'd heard about the slow, tranquil pace of the culture, and with Southeast Asia undergoing rapid transformation, Takesue wanted to visit and film as soon as she had a chance, which presented itself during a recent sabbatical.

Takesue also has won her fair share of awards and accolades during her long career.

She is the recipient of Guggenheim and Rockefeller Fellowships. In 2018 she received the Breakthrough Award from Chicken and Egg Pictures, which honors female documentary filmmakers who have made a significant contribution to the field and comes with a $50K unrestricted award. Her films have screened at more than 200 festivals and museums internationally, including the Sundance Film Festival, the Locarno Film Festival, New Directors/New Films, SXSW and the Museum of Modern Art and have aired on PBS, IFC, Comcast and SundanceTV. Her last feature documentary, 95 And Six to Go, which was nominated for the prestigious 2017 European Doc Alliance Award and screened at more than international festivals, including CPH:DOX, DOK Leipzig, Doclisboa, FIDMarseille and DOC NYC.

The attention her latest film is receiving has been equally rewarding.

Antoine Thirion, of Cinema du Reel, said of Takesue’s latest work: "Who are these ‘onlookers’ if not at the same time them, her and us, filmmaker and spectators, villagers and travellers? ...Faced with the ravages of tourism and the persistent colonial mentalities, it is easy to forget this register where the gaze suspends prejudices and establishes a level of equivalences; a group-based approach able to question the way in which roles are constructed, and where the work of filmmaking merges with the exercise of hospitality."

Inney Prakash, of BAM’s Pismatic Ground, was equally lavish in his praise for the film.

Kimi at Cinema du Reel
Takesue speaking at the Cinema du Reel festival in March

"Kimi Takesue’s Onlookers, despite its placid veneer and languid pace amid the sightseeing landmarks of Laos, is loaded with the tension borne of ocular entanglement between subjects in their daily environments, tourists ogling per their mandate, Takesue’s own camera and subject position as traveler, and our apparently fixed positionality as witnesses to the scenes she captures. The result is as complex and open-ended as the social co-existence it reveals. Through a series of expertly framed static takes (and meticulous sound design), we’re free to let our senses wander between the sometimes humorous, sometimes off putting, and always porous borders between seen and seer— and might just take pause to consider who could be observing us as we do."

The film continues its travels across the globe, heading next to the 63rd Krakow International Film Festival, in Poland, one of the oldest documentary film festivals in the world, which takes place at the end of May.

Takesue is grateful for the support she’s been receiving in light of the pressures in the film industry.

“Documentaries are gaining popularity with the public, but many are increasingly commercialized, large budget productions—and the reality is that it's very difficult to compete as an individual filmmaker with powerful production entities, funders and distributors,” she said. “I take pride in making independent, intimate, hand-crafted films that have a distinct perspective and exist outside of the commercial film industry, and it’s been a privilege to travel with Onlookers to film festivals internationally and share the film with audiences from around the world. I can’t wait to share the film with a BAM audience.