Kimi Takesue's Onlookers (still image)
Toggle caption Photo by Kimi Takesue

Professor Kimi Takesue Premieres Her Latest Feature Documentary Film at Slamdance

Professor Kimi Takesue, of Rutgers University–Newark’s Video Program, is no stranger to awards and accolades. 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.

Takesue’s newest film, Onlookers, her 11th title to date, recently had its world premiere at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and received the Grand Jury Prize–Honorable Mention as part of the event’s Breakouts Competition. In late March the film will have its international premiere at the prestigious Cinema du Reel documentary festival, at the Pompidou Center in Paris.

Onlookers immerses audiences in a visually stunning meditation on travel and tourism in Laos, in Southeast Asia. Traveling the country's dusty roads and meandering along its tranquil rivers, Takesue 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.

We sat down with Takesue to discuss her latest work, the rigor it took to make the film, what went into its unique aesthetic, and the questions underlying the journeys we take as travelers and tourists.

When did you shoot and edit the footage for Onlookers?
 I filmed during two trips to Laos in 2017 and 2020, each approximately a month long. I traveled alone and did the cinematography and sound recording myself, which was demanding. I moved by bus from the north part of the country to the south, cradling in my lap my bag, which held essential drives, camera and computer, while my backpack was precariously tied on the roof of a minivan. I filmed alone, heaving equipment on my back, squatting as inconspicuously as possible on dusty roads, and sweating profusely. The act of solo travel and filming can be incredibly difficult but also exhilarating and empowering. I started the editing process in 2019 at artist residencies like Yaddo (Saratoga Springs, NY) and Bogliasco (Genoa, Italy), then spent concentrated time editing during the pandemic. During this phase, I shift between intensive, focused work and moments of pause that allow me to re-visit cuts later with fresh eyes and ears.

While visiting Laos, I was struck by the disruptive impact of tourism on local culture, but I was also contemplating larger existential questions.

You take a fairly unstructured, slightly improvisational approach to documentary work, which travel-documenting lends itself to.
 For me, documentary filmmaking is most gratifying when I follow my curiosity and develop projects in loose, exploratory ways. Filmmaking becomes an opportunity for me to have rich life experiences—to wander and reflect, to visit new places, to embrace spontaneous encounters. The pleasure of documentary filmmaking is unscripted. Once I impose expectations and agenda onto the process it loses something essential. My creative process involves long periods of reflection and consideration. Since I don’t start the project with a clear agenda or thesis to prove, I am discovering the themes and aesthetics of the piece as I go. Once I’ve finished shooting, I spend a lot of time familiarizing myself with the footage to discover its strengths and to find connective thematic and rhythmic threads.

The style of this film is unique, almost like a series of still images.
 Yes. Onlookers is entirely observational and is structured in a series of formal tableaus where the action unfolds within the static frame—the result is similar to a photograph or painting coming alive. In taking this approach, I’m interested in capturing the interplay between naturalism and stylization in filmic images. How can the spontaneity of life play out within a fixed, carefully composed frame? What does the choreography of travel look like as people enter and exit spaces and interact with the environment, architecture and one another?

This is a thrilling form of filmmaking that requires patience; I discover moments when all the elements cohere: color, light, movement and meaning. [The photographer] Henri Cartier Bresson talked about the “decisive moment” captured in his photographs—in Onlookers, these are extended decisive moments that move in time. In a sense, each shot is a mini-film unto itself that allows the viewer time to fully engage with the image. Onlookers embraces the act of attention: What might be gained if we slow down and look and listen deeply?

Have you always been interested in tourism as a subject matter?
 I’ve made several films that explore aspects of tourism, including Looking for Adventure (2013), which observes group tourism in Peru, so it’s a recurring thematic interest in my work. Travel, in general, inspires me to film because it activates my senses and clarifies my ability to see and appreciate everyday life around me. While visiting Laos, I was struck by the disruptive impact of tourism on local culture, but I was also contemplating larger existential questions: Why do people travel? What are they ultimately seeking?

And what interested you in Laos?
 I had always wanted to travel to Laos because I had heard about the distinctive, slow, tranquil pace of the culture. Southeast Asia is undergoing rapid development and globalization, so I felt it was important to travel to Laos sooner rather than later. It seemed like the perfect trip to go on during sabbatical.

In approaching the film, and the many questions it raises, were you also performing a sort of self-examination as observer-participant?
 When I first arrived in Laos, it felt instantly familiar to me. I grew up in Hawai’i and felt at home in a laid-back environment with palm trees and a tropical climate. Being from an extremely popular tourist destination, I was accustomed to watching sunburnt tourists awkwardly traipsing along the beaches, often disrespectful of island culture and etiquette. Now the tables were turned, and I was the awkward backpacker on a standard itinerary, needing to consider my impact on the people and places visited. Onlookers invites self-reflection and challenges me, as well as the audience, to consider our touristic practices. And as a filmmaker, I often raise fundamental questions around the complex politics and ethics of cross-cultural representations. This film does that as well.

Thank you for sitting down with us.
 Thank you.