When I first saw Where Are You Taking Me? at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival, I was immediately taken by its quiet, subtle observation of contemporary Ugandan society -- and in particular, its active local film culture. Its strictly observational form may be unsettling to some, and perhaps even contrary to the film’s research-based premise, but throughout the film, Kimi Takesue tests what “observational” can mean. She makes it a part of her distinct point of view to represent not only aspects of Ugandans’ lives at an everyday level but also to interrogate the construction and migration of moving images and their meanings.
APA had the opportunity to speak with Takesue about the film, the tension between documentary and fiction, and her latest project.
Interview with Kimi Takesue
Interviewed by Rowena Aquino
Camera by Craig Stubing
Video edit by Henry Chen
Asia Pacific Arts: Can you tell us a little bit about your background in film?
Kimi Takesue: I teach at Syracuse University. I teach in Film Production and in Film Studies. But I started out [in film] initially through my interest in Cultural Studies and questions around identity. This was in the early nineties. I was a bit frustrated about what I could really explore within an academic context, so I started looking more into film, and I just felt there was a lot more possible. My first film kind of dealt with questions around identity, being an Asian American woman. Then I ventured out from there.
APA: How did this project of Where Are You Taking Me? come about?
KT: It was commissioned by the Rotterdam International Film Festival, as part of a special series on African cinema. They basically asked ten filmmakers who had never traveled to Africa before [to] produce a film independently -- shooting it, producing it, directing it, editing it on their own, for a very small budget. They asked the ten filmmakers to go to different countries. Part of the initiative was for the commissioned filmmakers to research the local film scene, to find out who the local filmmakers were, and to try to facilitate an introduction between the Rotterdam Film Festival and the local filmmakers, so that they could then commission local filmmakers: finding out who were the interesting filmmakers, what were they doing, and facilitating that introduction. And then also, while we were there, making whatever film you would like to make.
So I had a huge amount of freedom. There was really no agenda or any parameters. You could really approach it any way you wanted to. Most people were traveling for two to three weeks in a particular place. The film had to be completed within three or four months to then premiere at the Rotterdam International Film Festival.
APA: I’m glad that you mentioned the research aspect of your project. I love the kinds of film culture you get in the film: the young man improvising dialogue and sound effects for a Bruce Lee film in a makeshift cinema; the film crew in the rock quarry. How did you discover these people?
KT: Because I didn’t have to write a treatment and develop the project idea in a traditional way, in terms of getting funding, there was a lot of trust in me as an artist to go and to make a piece. I wanted to take advantage of that and approach this with a whole sense of discovery. I was really going into it very intentionally, [but] without knowing exactly what I was going to do. I wanted to do a piece that allowed me to respond to what unfolded. Whatever became interesting or whatever I encountered, I would just pursue it. Because I was working alone, without having a large crew or people making decisions, it was really kind of organic, the way it all evolved.
I didn’t go in having done any research, for example, on the VJs, people who basically translate films into the local language. A lot of times, in very poor slum communities, a lot of the kids are illiterate and don’t read or write. The guy who is the translator is doing a live translation [of the film] into the local language. He often does these films, like Bruce Lee films or action films. I heard a little bit about this subculture. While I was there, I talked to some people and they led me to some of the interesting VJs that were working.
Similarly, with the independent filmmaker, while I was there, I was talking to people, and I was meeting some of the filmmakers. I was invited on set by this woman filmmaker, who was making an independent film. Part of what was so interesting to me about that situation was that she was doing a film that was set in this real context. She was using a location where a lot of people worked to make gravel. It’s a really dangerous job, extremely low-paying, and you have a lot of kids doing that. Kids are blinded and injured because rocks fly into their eyes. She was using that location in her film, but using the real people that actually work there. So there’s this weird situation that’s disorientating in my film, because you don’t quite know what it is. You don’t know what you’re looking at, at first. As a documentarian, I’m just portraying the situation, then we pull out and we see a film is being made within that context. It’s kind of a blend of fiction and documentary.
APA: I love that tension between documentary and fiction throughout the film. You shot events and situations in a multitude of spaces. Did you actually have trouble accessing certain places, like the school where child soldiers are rehabilitated? Or were people generally open and aware of the project that was going on?
KT: I encountered certain apprehensions or resistance, in the sense that there wasn’t a real understanding of an independent filmmaker at work. I was perceived often as a journalist. So there was a lot of apprehension that I was trying to cover a story. There was a lot of worry about the potential for distortion -- maybe I was doing some story on AIDS and using people’s images out of context.
APA: And that is where the poignant question and title "Where are you taking me?" comes from.
KT: I think that that gets raised in a lot of different ways within the film: concern about “How are you circulating my image? What are your intentions?” I was often just roaming around the city. I really wasn’t seeking anything in particular. I would discover, say, a sign that advertised a women’s weightlifting competition. I thought, “That is really interesting, so I’ll just go check that out.” That was how [the film] unfolded.
The school was the one place where it was different. I had a very good friend who had traveled to Uganda and was in touch with some really interesting artists, who were working in the performing arts. There’s this man named Sam Okello, who is an internationally-renowned artist. He works in music, dance, and theatre. I was introduced to him. He actually has a very interesting background, both he and his family. He had been abducted as a child [to serve] as child soldier. He has invested a lot of resources into creating this school, in the northern part of Uganda, for kids who have been impacted by the war. His approach is to use art, dance, and theatre as a form of healing and to help the kids, in terms of dealing with their emotional trauma.
One of the things that was really important to me about this piece, even though I had no set agenda for this film or preconceived ideas about what it would be, [was that] I really didn’t want it to focus on images of atrocity, horror, or victimization. I felt that most of the images we see of Uganda and Africa just tend to be so negative and focus on horrific, sensational topics. Not to say that that doesn’t exist, not to say that it isn’t important to look at that, but I felt it was so important to see other aspects of life and culture there. In going to this school, I was a bit apprehensive because I knew it was a school for kids who had been impacted by the war. I didn’t want my film to focus on that [subject] in a traditional way. I tried to represent it quite differently. The focus is on the way in which these kids are functioning in a very normal way, going to school, [being] involved in classes, drawing, picking green peppers as part of an agricultural lesson. Then you learn later on in the film the history and context, to a certain degree, to appreciate the degree to which they have been resilient and overcome this past. I didn’t want to define them around solely that history, because there are so many other aspects to their lives and who they are.
APA: Did that play into your decision not to use talking head interviews? There are sequences where you see these children set up to as if they are going to speak, but instead, we hear disembodied voices.
KT: I really didn’t want to focus on having them relive the horrors of their life. But at the same time, I felt it was important to give a little bit of social and political context to understand what these kids have overcome. So while the focus was not on that, at a certain point, it was necessary to understand that these kids did have that history and still were able to move on and function. That’s when the observational approach breaks momentarily, because there are those brief, few interview fragments with the voices and the little portraits. I just felt it was important to touch upon lightly, not to really dwell upon it.
APA: Can you talk about the screening of the film in Uganda?
KT: It was really nice to be able to return and show the film in Uganda at the Amakula [Kempala] International Film Festival. A lot of the people and a lot of the situations in the film were very spontaneous. It was just me on the street, filming various things that, in some cases, I didn’t know if I would use or from a more detached perspective. But anyone that I had any real interaction with or in any I could track down, I invited to the film. For example, the VJ, who did the translation of the Bruce Lee movies, came. He’s also a filmmaker, so he’s doing a lot of interesting things as well. Members of the boxing club; members of the wedding party; the film director of the independent film, and also the people I had met along the way [came]. The people in the hotel [where I stayed] were even aware of the project. They [had] led me to some places. For example, a waiter led me to the break dance club. A lot of people from the hotel came to the screening. It was really great to have all of those people see the film. There was a really interesting and wonderful response to it.
In terms of the structure of the film, the observational documentary was not something people were familiar with. Structurally, it was challenging, but people responded to it. Although it was an outsider’s perspective, I think they appreciated the fact that the focus was not on sensational topics. One really nice compliment was that people felt they saw their city in a new way.
I also did an observational documentary workshop with young Ugandan filmmakers while I was there. That was really great because they were filmmakers who mostly came from a journalistic background. Again, this style of filmmaking, that didn’t have a particular agenda, was really different for them. They were really receptive and bright. It was cool to see people who truly had not been exposed to a certain kind of filmmaking respond so immediately to it. Then we did hands-on work, where they went out and did this technique. It was really nice because they said that it did inspire and challenge them to see their familiar surroundings in a new way.
APA: What is your next project?
KT: I work in both documentary and narrative. I actually have a narrative film that I just completed, that is circulating now. A lot of my films deal with different kinds of cross-cultural encounters, whether it be documentary or narrative. This new film is called That Which Once Was. It was commissioned by ITVS, which is part of PBS, as part of the "Future States" series. Ten filmmakers were commissioned nationally to make films that deal with some impending global issue. My film is about environmental refugees. It’s projected that in 2050, there are going to be 250 million people who [will be] displaced because of an environmental disaster. My film is about a boy from the Caribbean who has been displaced by a hurricane. He has lost his family and his home, and he’s living in a children’s shelter in New York City. It’s [also] about a man from the Arctic Circle who has been displaced by the ice melting. He’s an ice carver. It’s about this unlikely, unusual bond that develops between these two people.
It was partially inspired by my trip to Uganda: first, this conception of the children’s shelter, as we talked about, in terms of the school and kids impacted by the war. It was a very similar environment that I was creating in this children’s shelter [for That Which Once Was], where these kids were all gathered, who had been traumatized and displaced. Within this narrative film, they use a lot of forms of art as a part of the healing process. There are sequences where they are painting. [Secondly,] the visualization of it, in terms of having all of these kids who only have a couple of items from their past, like these little suitcases with a couple of remnants from their past. It was very much inspired by this experience in Uganda, both in terms of what I saw and how I connected emotionally to that experience.
APA: In this film, do you continue this tension between documentary and fiction?
KT: There’s definitely a blend. It’s about a young boy, so I ended up using an eight-year-old boy who had almost no experience in acting and other kids that were part of the shelter. It was so important for me to find people that had a certain authenticity, something that felt soulful about them. A lot of kids who are involved in acting tend to overact or overstate. We took a little more of a grassroots approach in terms of finding really interesting kids and interesting-looking kids who had a nice quality and presence to them. The star of the film, Vicente Otero, had not done any formal acting before. But he’s wonderful in the film. The other main character is an accomplished actor, Natar Ungalaq. He was the star of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001, Zacharias Kunuk), a film that won at Cannes and was made by a collective of Inuits in the Arctic Circle. He recently won a Genie Award for a French-Canadian film. We actually brought him from the Arctic Circle, where he lives. He came and is the other star of the film. He does a tremendous job. It was combination of experienced actors and non-traditional actors.
For more information, go to the Where Are You Taking Me?'s official website.