Rating:An expressionist snapshot of a fractured country, Kimi Takesue’s Where Are You Taking Me? captures modern Uganda at the ground level, cataloging the rhythms and lifestyles of its people across a diffuse, unnarrated 71 minutes. This might not be the expected angle for a documentary on a place which for years has been torn by insistent civil war, and which still remains a battleground, specifically due to new legislation that would make homosexuality punishable by death. But the unorthodox approach pays dividends, allowing us to burrow immediately beneath the usual talking points, exposed to the kind of everyday cadence that you don’t get from news coverage. Opening with a broad shot of cab drivers gathering at a curb, it holds for a while in expectation, as more and more bodies crowd the frame, anticipating the cultural cross-section that will follow.
A few external details help in understanding how the film operates. The first is that the director is a foreign presence, a Hawaiian woman whose outsider status informs the entire proceedings. The second is the more subtle notion that Where Are You Taking Me? operates in two discrete halves. The first, longer section begins with a wedding, the camera flitting about the bride and groom, and then moves on tangentially, from a female weightlifting competition to dust-coated workers packing cement. Set in the capital city of Kampala, this section is fascinatingly vibrant, the chronicle of a slowly stabilizing nation processing its outside influences. It’s a situation most adeptly presented in a later scene, as a young MC performs a live dub of a Bruce Lee movie, complete with whistle trills and sound effects.
After a brief interlude via some on-camera interviews, in which locals discuss the civil war, guns, child soldiering and other depressing realities, Where Are You Taking Me? enters its second movement. For this it skips to the countryside outside of the city, employing a similar tempo as it follows villagers in their daily lives. It follows another pictorial thread, beginning with the harvesting of peppers, continuing with students drawing those peppers in a still-life class, a figurative representation of the fruit of the land. This section is more scattered and less gripping, often resorting to landscape shots taken from moving vehicles, but it’s essential to the film’s progression. Having begun to move out of chaos, entering the process of absorbing the customs and products of the first world, the real crucible for the country’s future lies in its heartland communities, which must embrace the creation of ideas and systems of their own.
In this context, the title becomes a question, not only from a foreign filmmaker drawn along by a nation’s invisible currents, but of Uganda, both to itself and the world around it. Takesue accentuates her outsider status by drawing attention to the camera, a continuing gesture that begins with a sly wink from one of her subjects. Later it expands, capturing the shooting of the film itself, in a process that steadily wears down the border between observer and observed. The movie ends with a glorious moment of self-actualization, as children take over the frame, leaping in and out, introducing themselves under various names and descriptions. After the astonishing conclusion of Jafar Panahi’s recent masterpiece, it’s this year’s second great documentary climax, the exciting germination of a people’s power to tell their own stories.