April 22, 2012

Keeping It Real

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Here in the West, we are constantly flooded with images of a conflict-ridden Africa. Film after film portrays the  continent as a land of war and disease — a place that we privileged Westerners must aid and pity. It’s a clichéd and massively false representation, yet films of this nature remain the status quo.

Kimi Takesue’s 2011 documentary Where Are You Taking Me? is not one of these films. Rejecting almost every traditional element of documentary filmmaking, Where Are You Taking Me? is a stunning and accurate portrayal of daily Ugandan life. On Tuesday night, Takesue will bring this award-winning documentary to Cornell Cinema for a screening and discussion with Prof. Iftikhar Dadi, History of Art.

Commissioned by the Rotterdam Film Festival, Where Are You Taking Me? seeks to explore and understand the nation of Uganda, as well as the alienating phenomenon of cross-cultural travel. Between the long, static shots, dialogue in an untranslated local language and the near-invisible hand of the filmmaker, this experimental documentary brilliantly disorientates the audience to an extent that would make Brecht proud.

“The film is a journey of discovery and surprise,” Takesue said. “It has a certain jarring aspect which is that you never really know where you are going. I’m trying to recreate the disorientation of cross-cultural travel and I’m trying to address some of the issues involved in creating cross-cultural representations.”

A film lacking a protagonist, a narrative and even a specific purpose, Where Are You Taking Me? remains strictly observational, placing the viewer in a position of constant uncertainty. Familiar shots — extended close ups of emotive faces, chaotic urban streetscapes, crowded flea markets — are completely decontextualized with incredible success. In a sea of documentaries that beat you over the head with a moral or call to action, Where Are You Taking Me? is a breath of fresh air.

“I went into this piece without an agenda or a set of expectations,” Takesue said. “I knew I didn’t want to make a film that focused on the horror of war or atrocities or AIDS. I had been inundated with these kinds of images in relation to Uganda and Africa — but that’s not to say I went in trying to create a positive representation, I just didn’t want to focus on any sensational subject matter.”

This approach is particularly successful in the invisibility of Takesue’s part in the film. Where Are You Taking Me? is not a tale of a Western filmmaker’s triumphant discovery of Uganda, nor is she set up as the benevolent savior revealing the horrors of African life. Instead, Takesue remains a distant traveler whose only goal is an honest portrayal of Uganda. It’s this approach that renders the film so evocative.

Filming everything from a hair salon to a weightlifting competition, Takesue explores everyday scenes that are surprisingly familiar and relatable — after all, is there anything less extraordinary than a young boy in a Harry Potter shirt watching his peers breakdance? Yet she also addresses Uganda’s local film culture, creating a friction between reality and fiction that further disorients the viewer. In one scene, we see people breaking rocks in a quarry in what appears to be a standard documentary scene. Yet as the scene progresses, we realize that a Ugandan filmmaker is present and the quarry is simply the setting for a local fictional film that uses a real place and real people. By providing context at the end of this and several other scenes, Where Are You Taking Me? superbly plays on the audience’s sense of reality, as well as its expectations.

“There are these multiple layers of a film within a film,” Takesue said. “It also plays upon our own stereotypes. You see that scene and consider it one way, but in fact there’s this whole other layer, this creative enterprise with filmmakers and artists as well.”

Her frank portrayal of the local art and film scene is largely effective. The average viewer does not associate Uganda with artistic endeavors or filmmaking; he or she sees the country as a nation rife with disease and war. Takesue seeks to replace these sweeping generalizations and horrific images with familiar realism that tells its own story.

“I’m interested in letting the images speak for themselves,” she said. “I wanted to recreate the experience and rhythms of travel by immersing the viewer in a place where they’re asked only to observe. There are points where you’re excluded from the action.”

Only once does she delve into one of the heavier aspects of Ugandan life. Near the end of the film, Where Are You Taking Me? features zoomed-in shots of faces that stare directly into the camera as the subjects discuss their experiences with war. It’s a rare moment of clearly directed action, and its uniqueness makes it all the more affecting.

In all, Where Are You Taking Me? is less of a driven examination of Ugandan culture, and more a meditation on its representations. It’s not a film for everyone — the lack of narrative and protagonist may well prove too jarring for some audiences — yet Takesue achieves her goal of reflecting the nature of cross-cultural travel while providing a realistic portrait of Ugandan culture. This is an excellent and refreshing film from a director you won’t soon forget.

Original Author: Gina Cargas