Video Professor Kimi Takesue’s latest documentary film, Onlookers, has been making the rounds since its release a year ago, premiering at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, the prestigious Cinema du Reel documentary festival in Paris, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Prismatic Ground festival in New York City, and the 63rd Krakow International Film Festival in Poland, one of the oldest documentary film festivals in the world.
Later this month, Onlookers will achieve another milestone when it gets its theatrical release at New York’s renowned arthouse cinema Metrograph.
“This is a career highlight for me,” said Takesue. “It is virtually impossible to get a theatrical release at Metrograph—one of the top arthouse cinemas in the country—for a tiny film like this. They're doing it because they love the film, and I’m grateful.”
Metrograph will screen Onlookers Feb. 16-22, with Takesue holding director Q&A sessions with the audience on each of the first three nights. The cinema will also show the film as part of its Fire Over Water: Films of Transcendence series, Feb. 16-18. It is one of 12 films in the series and will be screened alongside works by renowned auteurs Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Kim-Ki Duk, among others.
Filmed by Takesue during two trips to Laos in 2017 and 2020, Onlookers immerses audiences in a visually stunning meditation on travel and tourism in that Southeast Asian country. Traveling the country's dusty roads and meandering along its tranquil rivers, Takesue weaves a series painterly tableaus—akin to still images with action unfolding within static frames—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’m interested in capturing the interplay between naturalism and stylization in filmic images,” Takesue said of her filmmaking style. “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?”
In addition to screening Onlookers on its own and as part of the Fire Over Water series, Metrograph will stream a mini-retrospective of Takesue’s three feature-length documentary films—Onlookers, Where Are You Taking Me, and 95 and 6 to Go—for an entire month (Feb. 16-March 3), which will expose her body of feature work to new audiences and increase the reach of her unique style of filmmaking.
Metrograph’s program notes for the retrospective illustrate the deep appreciation its curators have for Takesue’s work:
"Experimental filmmaker Takesue, who made her feature length directorial debut with 2010’s Where Are You Taking Me? a cinematic survey of the nation of Uganda and portrait of survivors of its civil war, has created a singular body of work that combines aspects of ethnographic, autobiographical, and fiction/nonfiction hybrid cinema. Bringing together Takesue’s three features to date—Where Are You Taking Me?, 95 and 6 to Go, and her newest film, Onlookers—this series shines a light on one of the most restlessly curious and formally adventurous practitioners of documentary in the contemporary United States."
Takesue has been no stranger to 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, 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.
“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.”