“What is going on here?” At the end of Where are You Taking Me?, a group of Ugandan children come upon a camera, apparently parked along the dirt road they walk to and from school. They pause to look into it, to speak to it, to gesture at it. They strike poses, as individuals and as a group, as if the camera might capture them as a still photo. They are lovely. They laugh and joke, they describe themselves. One names her mother, another explains, “I’m just here.” And then they begin to tell their own names: one after the other, they lean toward into the frame and speak.
The scene closes Kimi Takesue’s documentary even as it opens it up. For as the children make their own use of the camera, as they play with it and wonder at it, they help you to wonder at it too. What are the uses of recording experience? Of watching someone smile or hearing her name? Of seeing a dirt road, blue sky, and passing clouds? As the film ends, you will also be thinking of the stories told in Where Are You Taking Me?, screening this week at Anthology Film Archives, stories of hope and endurance, of life during war.
This life is visible in various stages throughout the film, beginning with its first gorgeous shot, looking down on a city street where men park their motorbikes and cars make their ways around pedestrians. Some carry packages, many wear white shirts; they’re all busy, on their way somewhere. The scene is brief, the street pale brown, and the movement of figures ceaseless. As the film goes on to show, such commerce and commotion are at once diurnal and extraordinary, given what’s come before.
Amid war, when daily experience is chaos, it’s extraordinary that cabbies might still solicit fares, that people might walk to work or be married or sell fabrics in a market. At times, individuals acknowledge the camera, but more often they pass by, focused on where they’re headed or what they’re doing. Sometimes they’re waiting: the wedding couple sits on a bench, waiting to speak their vows, the woman’s face expectant behind a sheer, beautiful veil. Following, they dance amid soap bubbles, blurry in the low light. This scene cuts to another, young women weightlifters in competition. The first lifts her barbell into the frame, then the camera pulls out to show her context. Here again the competitors wait, as one by one, they take to the stage, or more precisely, a designated space in a large room. Their taut faces and restless postures suggest their nervousness and their confidence, their disappointments and their triumphs, attended by cheers from the audience. A photographer is working, waiting for his shot.
The film’s attention to such in between moments, what happens when something is about to happen, makes it simultaneously contemplative and anticipatory. One shot shows a doorway, the wall on one side bright pink, through which you see another door, turquoise. You wait, and then you see a man walk by, his track pants blue with a red stripe, a rifle in his hand. He may be a guard, he may be someone else. The scene cuts to a shop where women are having their hair styled, mirrors all around them. A man comes into frame with a handheld digital camera, filming while a background TV shows men with backpacks, at least one with a gun. Still another scene shows a movie theater, a kung fu movie on screen while a man with a microphone narrates the action for the several people in the audience.
Such scenes suggest how screens mediate experience, how pictures are made and circulated, how events and ideas are shared. A brief scene in a church shows parishioners in their seats, hands up on cue: “Hallelujah.” Another at a worksite offers another glimpse at this process: laborers chop at gravel, one or two look back at the camera. Then you spot a camera amid the workers, and a man near a light on a stand. He glances at the camera, then walks out of frame, just before another man in a yellow t-shirt walks past, boom mic and wires in hand. Boys — one with an eye injury — watch the proceedings, their arms crossed over their thin chests, while you hear someone off-screen, yelling “Cut.” The crewmembers consult. “We’re doing the last two shot scenes of the day,” a woman explains. “We’ll do something else after.”
After, you see a zoo, where a lion yawns and unformed schoolchildren pose for photos. Again, the colors are vibrant, bright blues and orange shirts, orange pop in bottles, and the smiles incandescent. And after, you see students in a classroom, the camera panning their faces, some focused on the off-screen teacher and others looking directly into the camera. The light from the schoolroom window is harsh white, the shadows on their faces dark and sharp. “He say he would willingly lay – dash — his life for his country,” says the teacher. “What would be the best option there?”
If the best word is clear enough, the best option might not be. To indicate this dilemma, the film includes interviews with victims of war and former child soldiers, once conscripted by the Lord’s Resistance Army, formed in 1987 by Joseph Kony and still active. “We have children who have been affected by the war,” says one man, “Either their parents were killed by the war or they were child soldiers.” The camera shows faces, very close, under young men’s voices and high whine of bugs. “Walking, I remember,” says one, “And fighting I remember, then killing people, I also remember.” War is never-ending, even after. A young man in a yellow shirt speaks, “As I sleep at night, I dream, I hear, a gun, gunshot. I dream about guns.” He tilts his head back and keeps looking at the camera: “Why you taking my story, USA or New York? About my life, as I [have] been telling you? Why do you want to go with it there?”
Why indeed? What does Where Are You Taking Me? have to do with you, Western viewer, as you piece together bits of stories, as you fit them into your own experience? How are filmmakers responsible as they transport and share such stories? And how are viewers responsible to what they see? Beautifully, achingly, Where Are You Taking Me? asks these questions and more.