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LAFF ’10 | Director Kimi Takesue Lets Uganda Speak for Itself in “Where Are You Taking Me?”

LAFF '10 | Director Kimi Takesue Lets Uganda Speak for Itself in "Where Are You Taking Me?"

A high society wedding, bustling city streets, a center for former child soldiers, a nightclub full of music and laughter: these are the many faces of today’s Uganda, as wonderfully captured by filmmaker Kimi Takesue. Whether exploring the pulsating energy of the city or contemplating quiet moments in the country, her artful camera compositions and the lyrical pacing of the film allow us to truly engage and process the foreign land on our own terms. Documenting Uganda while it deals with day-to-day realities and the aftermath of its civil wars, Takesue, well aware of her perspective as an outsider, strives for simple, unadorned honesty.

Employing a largely observational style, Takesue allows the sight and sounds—and the people—of Uganda to speak for themselves. Usually the people she records simply ignore the camera, but when someone does engage—whether it’s a group of school children clamoring for their moment in front of the lens or a young man asking the title question—the barriers between filmmaker, subject, and audience give way for breathtaking cinematic epiphanies. [Synopsis provided by LAFF]

Where Are You Taking Me?
Documentary Competition
(Uganda, USA, 2010, 72 mins, HDCam 29.97)
Directed By: Kimi Takesue
Producers: Kimi Takesue
Cinematographer: Kimi Takesue
Editors: Kimi Takesue, John Walter
Co-Producer: Richard Beenen
In association with: Lane Street Pictures

[EDITOR’S NOTE: indieWIRE is profiling the Narrative and Documentary Competition filmmakers who are screening their films at the Los Angeles Film Festival]

Director Kimi Takesue on how her background inspired her to make documentaries…

I was raised in Hawai’i and Massachusetts by an Asian-American father and a Caucasian mother and grew up shuttling between different cultural zones. My bi-racial background impacted my worldview and sparked my interest in exploring the complex dynamics of cross-cultural encounters within the context of film and storytelling. I’m particularly interested in the meeting point, when people from different cultures come together and grapple with questions of difference, identity, and communication.

Takesue on how her latest film came to be, and on the approach she took in completing her documentary…

“Where Are You Taking Me ?” was commissioned by the Rotterdam International Film Festival as part of a special series on African Cinema. Twelve international filmmakers, who had never traveled to Africa, were invited to make films on their experiences in Africa. There were no constraints imposed by the curator and I had full creative freedom. Local African filmmakers were also commissioned to make pieces for the festival—so the project kick started an interesting dialogue between African, European, American, and Asian filmmakers. I traveled to Uganda and was particularly excited to participate in this project because my film work often deals with various kinds of cross-cultural encounters. I am interested in the process of “looking” cross-culturally, and the interplay between the observer and the observed.

I went to Uganda without a specific agenda or set of expectations. As a one-person crew, I had a great deal of flexibility with my time and method of working. Rather than execute a specific plan, I was interested in responding to what unfolded and emerged during the journey. The one conscious decision I made was to steer away from stereotypical and sensationalist images of Uganda. Within the media, I feel we’re inundated with images of Africa and Uganda that relate to war, poverty, hunger, and disease. I was interested in collecting a collage of images and observational vignettes that captured the nuances and rhythms of everyday life.

As an Asian-American woman wandering through the streets of Kampala with a camera there were legitimate suspicions about who I was and what my intentions were in filming. Most people assumed that I was a journalist with a specific agenda; there was a lot of fear that I would likely misrepresent a situation. These concerns were justifiable–so often, in the context of Africa, people’s images are appropriated and misused. People also assumed that I was directly profiting from “stealing” their image and sometimes expected to be paid, if filmed.

I spoke with one young Ugandan man about this issue at length. I asked to film him and he initially refused. He was concerned that his image might be used out of context—for example, to inaccurately illustrate a news story on poverty or AIDS in Africa. I then explained—that I was an artist, and my intention was to show everyday aspects of Ugandan life, from a personal viewpoint. Once he understood that I was an artist, rather than a journalist he was willing to be filmed. It was rewarding to have this personal dialogue but it wasn’t always possible. At times, it was frustrating to be denied access, but I understood and respected people’s concerns about filming.

Takesue on what she asks of her audience, and what they should expect…

“Where Are You Taking Me?” is primarily an observational film; there is no voice-over narrating the journey. No translations are provided. No attempt is made to explain or definitively inform the viewer about Uganda. Instead, the film captures my sensory impressions of people and places, by concentrating on the images, details, colors and sounds that left an impact: a high society wedding, a women’s weightlifting competition held in the banquet room of a fancy hotel, a video VJ doing live translations of Bruce Lee films into the local Lugandan language, kids posing for school portraits on a field trip to the zoo…

The film invites the viewer to come along on a journey to Uganda—to watch, to listen, to experience. As the title suggests, it is a journey into new territory that is both familiar and exotic, disorientating and eye opening. The film is filtered through a very personal lens, but I hope it offers images that speak to the beauty, vitality and specificity of everyday life in Uganda.

That being said, the piece also raises questions about the politics and ethics of the documentary enterprise and cross-cultural representation. How are these images being appropriated and for what use? How will these images be disseminated and consumed? What right do I have to take these pictures? It is an inquiry that can never be fully answered, and one that implicates both the filmmaker and audience.

Takesue on films that have inspired her and on her future projects…

There are countless films that have inspired me along the way, but in this piece I feel a particular connection to the Dutch documentary filmmaker, Johan van der Keuken. Like Van der Keuken, I’m interested in the interplay between naturalism and stylization, and in finding poetic moments in the everyday. On the one hand, “Where Are You Taking Me?” is anchored in a very naturalistic world but it also has elements of abstraction and stylization. Much of the piece is structured in a series of long observation tableaus where action unfolds within a static frame. This formal strategy encourages a viewer not only to look, but to continue to look, hopefully more deeply, and, thus, to become aware of the complicated, and often changing, spatial and personal relationships revealed by the camera.

I’m currently in pre-production on a short narrative film titled “That Which Once Was.” The film is set in 2050 and it’s about a twelve-year old boy from the Caribbean who is displaced by global warming and fends for himself as an “environmental refugee” in New York City. Haunted by memories of flooding that left him homeless and orphaned, the boy makes an unexpected connection with an Inuk ice carver who helps him confront his past. Genie award-winning actor Natar Ungalaq (“Atanajurat: The Fast Runner”) is slated to play the lead role.

The short film is a bit of a companion piece to a narrative feature film project I’m currently developing about a cross-cultural love story between a Japanese ice-carver and a struggling cabaret singer in New York City.

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