Of the many, many contradictory dynamics in the age of late-stage capitalism, tourism may be one of its most defined. For anyone who has travelled to (or, god bless them, lived in) a destination infamous for over-tourism, you know the ins and outs of it. I myself spent nearly seven years in Amsterdam… a city where it is virtually impossible to cross the street without yielding extensively to swarms of visitors – often intoxicated to rather a high degree (no pun intended). But, it is more than just the quality of visitors which has proliferated in the age of Airbnb, EasyJet, and GeoTagging. It is also what happens to the destination itself as a result of such an influx. Continuing with the example of Amsterdam, it’s now a city whose existence seems twofold: a landscape for «experience» with said experience absolutely integral to its self-identity (read: bottom line). Do you really think they will ever ban the sale of Cannabis or shut down the Red Light District? Mayors, locals, and activists can go through all the motions they want, but those are absolutely seminal to the city’s identity as an experience destination. The same goes for, say, hedonistic nightclubbing in Berlin; or the search for the perfect «hey, I’m walking here!» moment in New York City. In short, despite its economic benefits, modern tourism has turned organic locations into caricatures of what they once were… and I haven’t even mentioned the environmental and cultural heritage impact (in short, it’s bad).
With this preamble, we turn our attention to Onlookers, director Kimi Takesue’s immersive meditation on tourism, its participants, and the locations where it takes place. Onlookers is not, however, an overt indictment of tourism. In fact, it presents more of a cyclical ecosystem where foreigners and locals seem to cohabit – almost symbiotically exist with each other, in both humour and frustration. That said, Onlookers is hardly a tourism sympathiser either.
In this, Takesue’s third film, the location is far away from Europe or North America, where most of the top international tourist destinations reside (USA, France, UK, and Germany, among them). Instead, it focuses on the Southeast Asian country of Laos. Once heavily bombed a part of the Vietnam War (albeit, a strong case of it being a destination of its very own CIA-lead shadow war), Laos is now a budget-friendly destination offering Buddhist temples aplenty, a tropical climate, and a general sense of Eastern «exoticism» (at least, for the lay-traveller). The film, through its accessible 60+ minutes, follows a group of young French backpackers (and others). They arrive en masse, unload ungodly-sized luggage, check their GPS, and, of course, take selfies… lots and lots of selfies. They travel to mountaintops, float down rivers, and observe religious rituals (again, cameraphones firmly in hand). Interestingly enough, they also sit around and watch… Friends (sorry, but I have to rhetorically ask: isn’t there something better to watch while 5000 km from home… is Laos the only place on Earth where The Simpsons is not available)?
despite its economic benefits, modern tourism has turned organic locations into caricatures of what they once were
Onlookers is a slow, steady meditation. Its sensory immersion, though simple, is effective. Compelling, even. Through a series of consistent wide shots, the camera never moving, to a sound tableau that picks up the most subtle of touristic rustlings (think, small rocks dislocating from endless footsteps or trinkets rattling around in the wind), Onlookers not only grabs your gaze almost subconsciously, but it also elicits nostalgia and self-reflection of ones own such experiences. As I watch the steady shot, where, for example, a group of monks ritualistically chant and ring bells as a parade of tourists gradually walk up, snap a photo, and walk away in an almost workmanlike efficiency, I wonder about my own travels in the region. Am I also an onlooker when I do a yoga class in the Kerala backwaters? Or am I a participant? Or, am I a caricature of my own western white privilege enamoured with «far away» lands but really just seeking reality as far from western nihilism as I can? Onlookers may not have the answers to such questions, but it opens those thought avenues. And on a more macro level, contemplates the complicated tourist/local relationship, which, in Laos, its socialist economy is dependent on.
Onlookers premiered back in January with an honourable mention at Slamdance, the distant (but significantly edgier) brother of Sundance – itself a completely unsustainable mass migration into a locale not nearly equipped, naturally, for such repeated influx. It now screens its European premiere at Paris creative documentary-focused Cinema du reel, where it will surely find a curious and considered audience. Perhaps a more apropos audience cannot be found elsewhere. The backpackers in the film are primarily French, while Paris itself is a top-five tourism city, so theoretically, its inhabitants have the experience of both sides of the tourism coin. Let’s hope those viewers also are able to ruminate on what they travel and what they seek. Perhaps it is this paradox of travel that is its very essence. Its reason for existing and continuing (to be honest, I’d rather it be this than the Eat, Prey, Love «find myself» angle).
That all said, there is one further thing to consider with Onlookers. And, with Kimi Takesue. Where does the director, the ultimate onlooker, lie in this dynamic? A native of Hawai’i, itself a heavily touristic destination, Takesue is acutely aware of tourism’s tendency toward the vulgar. In joining the tour group, camera in hand, as with everyone, does her role as «director» change anything? Is she now more participant, social ethnographer, and conscientious visitor? Or is she the most glorified western traveller of all? Regardless of how that debate pans out, she has still made a film that offers valid questions in this moment of post-pandemic «revenge tourism», as well as the ever-important opportunity for self-reflection.