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“We Need Work That is Impossible to Describe”: Kimi Takesue on Onlookers

A tourist photographs monks in Laos in Kimi Takesue's OnlookersOnlookers

When I first met Kimi Takesue, I saw a flash of recognition from her that my eyes reflected. It was clear we understood something very specific about each other—being biracial is, as she said, “a particular sensibility.” Takesue’s father is Japanese American, and her mother is Italian and German; my father is Filipino American, and my mother is also German. I’ve seen this same immediate recognition disarm other half-white, half Asian Americans whose way of carrying themselves, especially when that has helped them pass in white company, suddenly loses its balance: they feel seen for what they are (and are not) and forget how to proceed. But with Takesue, that recognition put us both at ease, and it’s something I felt before we met from the gaze of her latest film. Takesue’s Onlookers, a surprisingly funny observational documentary feature she shot in Laos on sabbatical, is all about these times when eyes meet each other, or a lens, and that recognition causes one party to fall in or out of balance.

Heightening the game of glances is Laos’s tourism industry and confrontations between locals and the country’s tourists: mostly French (who made Laos a protectorate), American (who dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War, making it per capita the most heavily bombed country in history) and East Asian. Takesue’s lens can disturb the otherwise untrammeled gaits of sightseers who, upon realizing they’re being watched, sometimes furrow their brow and tense their shoulders. Generally, locals (who are perhaps more subjected to cameras) respond less suspiciously. But the film captures an array of responses and ways of looking among people that complicates this binary. Takesue also observes banal activities—alms giving, river tubing, TV watching, souvenir buying and selling—and transcendent historical sites and mountain ranges, tracking the repetitiveness of tourist traffic rather than the landscapes that visitors ritualistically photograph to death from the same height and angle. 

But she’s not merely reversing too-common gazes or commenting on tourism’s cannibalization of a place, themes Takesue’s considered for decades in documentaries such as Heaven’s Crossroad (2002) and Looking For Adventure (2012). Onlookers is instead the pithy result of her long look at a place and its tourism from untrodden angles. She is able to look at travel critically as well as see its potential—which, to her, chiefly, is its ability to reactivate and clarify one’s sight. Cameras wield the same capacity; in 95 and 6 to Go (2016), it cuts through the mundanity of her and her grandfather’s usual interactions and enables deeper engagement. In her fiction work, such as Summer of the Serpent (2004), “a particular sensibility” of looking remains. She dares to be fascinated by the other—in one case, a lithe Japanese woman inside funeral appropriate swimwear, under the inky shade of a black umbrella, and beside her yakuza bodyguard at a pool otherwise full of Latino families in bright pinks and blues.

The filmmaker talked with me about her flowing vantage point in Onlookers, the secret thrills of blending in to observe others and, in the end, articulates the potential crisis and advantage of a biracial point of view balancing on the knife’s edge between fascination and exoticism. Onlookers makes its international premiere at this year’s Cinéma du Réel.

Filmmaker: Where do you see your camera relative to tourists and locals?

Takesue: The vantage point is not fixed. The film is so much about the act of looking at a new place, a new culture, a new people. Part of why I like to travel is because it really activates my vision; I feel my sight is clarified. I’m able to appreciate things I would normally overlook. It’s me looking at people and people looking at me or other people, this movement and exchange of the gaze. The film really is just driven by my own curiosity and what I’m seeing around me. It’s not an intellectualized approach.

Filmmaker: People respond to you and your camera very specifically. What did your rig look like, and how were you behaving behind it?

Takesue: I’m working in a very unobtrusive way with a very small camera, very simple equipment that is still difficult to physically handle as an individual moving around. It’s a form of filmmaking that requires patience. I’m not seeking out a particular thing, but I am responding to a situation, environment or activity that I feel is interesting, and committing to that space for a while to see what happens. I’m grounded in a place and they’re moving through my frame. I would emit a different feeling as a filmmaker if I were actively after something. That said, I am making choices about where to potentially commit a frame to. The film is structured in these formal tableaus—what I’m fascinated by is this interplay between naturalism and stylization. The frame itself is very formal and stylized, yet what is happening in that frame is completely spontaneous and unpredictable, so it creates this interesting tension between authorship and spontaneity. 

Filmmaker: It was interesting to see patterns of tourists’ motion whenever you turned the camera onto popular sites for taking photos.

Takesue: I think about Henri Cartier-Bresson talking about the decisive moment in photography. I feel a kinship to that, but these are decisive moments extended in time. They still need to operate with precision. The choreography of movement, color and light all have to cohere in order to be part of the film. Then, of course, what is the actual content unfolding within the frame and its significance? I am so interested in the choreography of travel and movement. [In the film] you often see people entering and exiting a space—the full movement of how people engage with architecture and one another. No doubt there’s a theme of the ways in which tourists consume places. There is a sense of invasion or intrusion in the way that people descend upon a place, then leave. But I also think it’s interesting to see a place after people have left and you see the emptiness—the mountain or the temple standing. On one hand, there’s a sense of impact on these environments, but you also see the enduring power and majesty of these places. They are larger than the impact of the people.

Filmmaker: You bookend that theme of leaving by showing the departure of the tourists, then the monks and almsgivers. 

Takesue: Monks have become the easy marker of the cultural difference of Laos. That’s why people photograph them. They’re struck by the beauty of that cultural difference, and that can also be reduced to a kind of exoticism. If you’re not of that culture, no doubt it makes an impression and one can’t help being seduced by that. I think that’s a tension within the film, because you see my own fascination as well. I am trying to comment on the ways in which the aspects of culture are trying to be commodified or fetishized. But I’m actually structuring the film around the people who give alms to the monks every morning instead of focusing on the monks. What does it reflect that Laotian people wake up at 4:30am to make rice and wait outside to give alms? A certain kind of generosity, spirituality, graciousness and discipline.

Filmmaker: I’m realizing that you show an act of giving after so many acts of taking.

Takesue: There is a universal desire to have new experiences. Clearly there are problems with travel in terms of its impact on other cultures. How does one do it sensitively and conscientiously? But the film is not just an indictment of travel. There are a lot of places that depend on tourism economically. During the pandemic, people weren’t traveling, and it had a devastating impact on these economies.

On one hand, we can ask, is the film arguing that tourists are not interacting with locals, and is that necessarily a good thing? I think we can be aspirational and idealize what it means to interact with a local person. But who benefits from that experience? Sometimes it can be good for tourism to be contained. Travel has the potential to activate the ability to critique, to be self-reflective, to feel more and be more present. The film is speaking to both the limitations and expansive possibilities that are part of this experience. I struggle to summarize what the film is about without being reductive, because the easiest way to talk about it is what we’re saying: “This is a critique of the destructive nature of tourism in Laos.” I hope it’s larger than that. 

Filmmaker: Why do you acknowledge your own presence in the end?

Takesue: I’m often in spaces where a lot of photography’s going on, so I’m not a very conspicuous presence. This is an intimate way of filmmaking that is more possible because I am perceived as an un-intimidating presence. We always want bigger, better cameras and more people. That affords you something, but this kind of filmmaking is only possible, in a sense, when one works as a chameleon. While there are moments when people acknowledge the camera, there are many in which they do not. It’s surprising when they do not. I think you see it most in the interactions with children. There you see the equivalence of curiosity: I’m curious about them and they’re curious about me, and you see that playful exchange. I don’t know if that would happen if I was a 6’5” American man with an enormous RED camera. [laughs] Those particular women at the end were across from the guest house where I stayed at, so I did have a little familiarity with them. At the end, I’m just thanking them and they’re saying “You’re welcome.” It speaks to my very rudimentary language skills. [laughs] 

Filmmaker: I assumed the rig was massive because of how some people reacted to it.

Takesue: Not every interaction is completely harmonious. There are people who express annoyance. I’m working in public spaces, and people often ask me about consent, if I got permission from the hundreds of people that I filmed. Like street photography, I believe we should be able to represent the world that we’re living in so long as we are not singling someone out and misrepresenting them. People can be accountable for their behaviors [in public spaces]. I think it’s important to show different levels of resistance. If someone is indicating that they do not want to be filmed, then I stop, but I might show little moments of tension.

There are so many ways that people overstep and there are ethical problems, but the answer is not to make a checklist of things that, if one checks off, somehow frees you of ethical questions. This is a kind of work that is responding to spontaneity. How do you make that kind of work if you then ask people in very specific ways if they’re aware of what’s going on? I think the work reveals a lot about the viewer. What do we project onto images and people and how we read them? The film is trying to implicate people to self-reflect, not to feel different or superior to the people on screen but to collectively identify with the range of experiences presented.

Filmmaker: What first brought you to Laos?

Takesue: Curiosity. I had a sabbatical and love to travel, and I always wanted to go to Laos. I had heard about its beauty and slow pace of life, and because of the rapid development and globalization in Southeast Asia, I felt I needed to visit as soon as I could. I brought my camera, and there was the hope that something might emerge from it, but at that point I really didn’t know. I’m not coming into it with a written proposal or a grant about what I expect to achieve in Laos with a film. No doubt certain themes reemerge in my work—I have sometimes explored this basic theme of cross-cultural encounters in the context of tourism. But really, I am just gathering material and reflecting on it later. 

The stylistic approach of the shoot is also determined by my equipment. The strength of the camera, and how I felt comfortable using it, was on a tripod, so it did lend itself to static tableaus. After I went [to Laos for] the first time, I looked at [the footage] and discovered some of the guiding themes and styles, but it was still very loose. The second time [I went to Laos], I had a greater sense of structure but still didn’t even know if it’s going to be a film. It had a kind of meandering quality to it. 

What we were talking about earlier in terms of the precision of these moments unfolding with a kind of perfection in the frame—they’re serendipities. It’s like this secret thrill you are quietly experiencing as a filmmaker that no one else is aware of. It’s a very special and private feeling. One of the things that made this easier to edit is that I had to eliminate so much material. Each shot has to meet a certain standard aesthetically to be a part of the film and ultimately have some kind of meaning—and that’s hard to achieve. That’s not how I make every film. For 95 and 6 to Go, which was a portrait of my grandfather in Hawaii, I had to be careful that any stylistic flourish served his portrait, was not gratuitous and revealed something essential about him and his character.

Filmmaker: Did you integrate a lot of foley? There’s a lot of fun sound work.

Takesue: I’m working with the recorded sound as a foundation, but there is amplification and enhancement. A lot of it is recorded in the places that I travel through, but there is some layering. It’s really tricky with a film like this, because it relies on a certain subtlety. All of the music in the film is diegetic, but at the same time the film is relying on image and sound. There’s almost no language in the film. How do you keep people engaged, especially when most of them are going to view it online? This deep act of looking and listening is a hard ask in this moment of incredible distraction. 

The film is political in requiring and inviting you to look deeply and experience the pleasures that doing so offers. But it’s different when you have a captive audience member in a theater, where they go through the process of that initial resistance and then perhaps allow themselves to surrender to the experience and finally enjoy it. When people are multitasking on their computers, looking at your film and answering emails—which is the reality of how most people view—how do you keep that person engaged? It’s very important that the sound engages the viewer without overdoing it. I work with Tom Effinger at Red Hook Post and Abigail Savage. There are some moments that are clearly a little exaggerated. For example, you wouldn’t hear certain footsteps [in real life from that distance]. But I am trying to immerse the viewer and keep them present. Sound is also used for the humor that you mentioned as well. There’s a little homage to Jacques Tati. You should see my pages and pages of sound notes—the kind of cicadas, which little bird flourish, or what this specific fly is doing. In a film that is about such small details, these kinds of things really matter.

Filmmaker: What gear were you carrying around?

Takesue: I used a Panasonic GH5, and I feel that they should endorse me and give me sponsorship. [laughs] Like solo traveling, this solitary mode of making is physically demanding, but it’s empowering to know that you can rely on yourself and have certain capabilities. But there is a limit to how much I can physically carry as I travel the country by bus. I was recording sound sometimes with an external mic, and sometimes with a Tascam. I cannot believe that I was able to record sound so well with that setup—I’m often filming from afar, but many times you can still hear snippets of what people are saying. 

Filmmaker: Did you learn anything from this particular assortment of reactions to your camera?

Takesue: I refine my ability to see through the act of shooting, because you’re in this mode of focused attention. Travel gives clarity to sight, but it’s also the act of filming. It does become a catalyst for interactions of different kinds. It goes back to this hunger that I have for some form of connection with people that I think is often lacking in daily life when you’re going through your normal routines. On one hand, people are traveling to hopefully have this experience or epiphany or to be more present, yet they are often replicating what’s familiar or are in a distracted state of superficial photography. We’re all in this conflicted state. It’s not fixed. People are moving between different zones and are very conflicted in their desires. 

Filmmaker: I’m excited to see what the filmmaking process activated for you and your grandfather in 95 and 6 to Go.

Takesue: I completely overlooked my grandfather. I had no idea who he even was. I completely reduced this person I’ve been interacting with my entire life to a caricature of a straight Asian American grandfather. I had no idea he had all these other dimensions to him, including a real creative side. My ability to see him was activated when he showed this interest in a screenplay I was developing. I saw this whole new side of him surface where he generated all these ideas. That became the starting point for me to film, but also for us to have these conversations that we never had, both about the project and other parts of life. The camera is, again, the catalyst that I think excited both of us. He did not perform for the camera, because he was very uncensored and frank. He did not change his behavior with the presence of the camera, which was very unusual. But I still think it helped us focus our attention on one another. 

As biracial people, we have the ability to see both sides of something. We develop an ability to be chameleons. We can integrate, yet we’re always outside. It’s that pulsation of vantage point that’s reflected in my work—I’m both inside and outside all the time. I occupy mostly the vantage point of an observer because I don’t feel that I completely integrate into any community, place or people, but I do feel I have a sensitivity for a lot of communities, places, and people.

My fiction films tend to feature characters who occupy that space on the fringes but are keen observers. The vantage point of the nonfiction films is also of this observer moving in and out of an experience. I do think it’s a particular sensibility. It presents complications when you’re in a moment of intense essentialism, where we feel we can only speak to ourselves or our community. But what does it mean when you don’t really identify so clearly with a particular community?  I think we have something to offer [with this unique point of view]. 

In this film, I’m not claiming to know more than I know. I’m not claiming to understand Laotian culture. I certainly don’t have some definitive take on the tourist experience. But I have a particular vantage point; we don’t want to reduce ourselves to thinking we can only speak in the most essentialist of ways to only our experience. I think our sensibility is reflected in the work that we make and how we approach that work, and of course, it is important to do it with great sensitivity and understanding. 

One could immediately critique the film: “This is a travelogue and a travelogue is inherently problematic.” You think of the history of the travelogue and ethnography and that’s true—there is a history to interrogate. But there are also other ways to approach that experience that perhaps are more nuanced and complex. We can’t just disregard or reject something in its entirety. I think that’s very important at this time.

Filmmaker: I felt a kindred way of seeing in your film. It made sense to me immediately.

Takesue: It’s easy to be impressionable and affected by other people’s opinions. This is a kind of filmmaking that’s so particular and specific. Not everyone is going to connect with it. Yet I am very committed to making work that is accessible, so I do feel there are a lot of points of entry into this film for someone who has curiosity and patience. I don’t want it to be esoteric and exclusive. How do you make work that is challenging and rigorous in some way but also remains accessible? 

If you were to get a lot of input on this film beforehand, they’d be telling you all kinds of things. I have to commit to very particular decisions that are not appealing to the common denominator. The hope is that people will take some time and open up to it. When work is quieter, it’s hard to compete in this given landscape. But it is really wonderful when people discover it, connect with it and you feel that sense of impact or sharing that’s happening. It’s very hard to get work like this out into the world. It’s hard to describe and market. We need work that is impossible to describe.

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