SLAMDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! A travelogue prepared by Kimi Takesue, Onlookers seeks to give the viewer an immersive experience. In a similar recommendation to the legendary 32 Sounds, the writer-director encourages viewers to wear headphones or use a good sound system when watching her documentary. And that’s where the similarity stops.
Here we are treated to what I would categorize as an impartial observation of small-town life in Laos. Takesue journeyed from the Greater New York area and spent some quality time recording audio-visual vignettes concerning life in the country. Laos seems to be a hub for all manner of tourist activity. Over the course of this travelogue, we see five ladies gather at the side of a road five times. It’s as if this gathering, which is coordinated seemingly daily to feed the local monastery of Buddhist monks, is as normative a ritual as any of the other slices of life Takesue captures on camera.
Onlookers acts as an impartial witness. Without judgment and ample natural light, the filmmaker selects all manner of activity to present without comment on camera. One of my favorite episodes is a rowing team. First, we watch them work their way up this long tributary near the town Takesue is sojourning at. Later, we watch them work their way back down said tributary. This seems to be a daily practice for these boaters as if they’re preparing for some sort of competition.
“…an impartial observation of small-town life in Laos.”
Further, we witness several weekend scenes. At one point, the town has set up a bouncy house, and the children cheerfully bounce around. Another such scene is clearly in the town square where a literal throng of Laosi walk this way and that, on their way to do something or other. Heck, it could just be a pedestrian as a Saturday in New York City, wherein people just walk the streets in groups for no apparent reason.
Certainly, as you watch Onlookers, you will see actions and behaviors which suggest we are all more alike than we believe. Honestly, it’s in travel that one understands while the powers that be may wish to divide humanity into “races,” truly, we are all cut off the same cloth, no matter how much or little melanin is in our skin.
Another fascinating image is the three times in the film travelers disembark. The main method of travel in the part of Laos Takesue is filming is river travel by boat. Three times, we watch the variety of ways people exit a ship. In one installment, a grandmother awaits her family’s arrival for a visit. In another, we see a host of clearly non-Asians stop at this town. They gawk and smile, and it is clear they are not locals.
Onlookers is a novel exercise in audio and visual presentation. Natural light, loads of wild sound, and the environment of Laos are presented plainly with zero artifices or embellishments. If you’re looking for a new kind of travel film, this is for you.
Onlookers screened at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival.