Position Among The Stars
- Posted: 10th Feb 2012
- Category: Reviews
- Tags: laura thornley,  review,  leonard retel helmich,  idfa,
by Laura Thornley
Position Among the Stars is the third and final instalment to Leonard Retel Helmich’s Indonesian trilogy: an intimate portrait of three generations of the Sjamsuddin family. The previous documentaries in the series, Shape of the Moon and Eye of the Day, have all gained critical acclaim in the shape of numerous International awards – and Position Among the Stars is no different.
Helmich has spent 12 years following the Sjamsuddin to portray the trappings of modern life in Indonesia as tradition and progress clash within one small family unit. Incorporating the view points of three generations, the matriarch and grandmother Rumidjah, a devout Christian, watches over the family, prays for them and encourages her granddaughter to pursue her education and get a career – for one of them must be a winner, the rest have all lost, she laments. Her granddaughter Tari is distracted by scooters, boys and hanging out with her friends, and has no interest in following Islam (which she needs to get funding for college) or focusing on her studies. Tari is orphaned and under the care of her uncle Bakti, who has converted to Islam. The family is split by religion and tradition, modernisation and finance; we are constantly made aware of just how poor this family are when their discussions about money and prices are converted to dollars for the viewer. Education is beyond their meagre purse and the only solution is for Rumidjah to pawn her house to pay for Tari.
The film manages to incorporate economics, religion and globalisation but, importantly, allows these world issues to resonate at a domestic level within the family. We are given access to some very private moments: when Bakti and his wife argue – she has fried his prize fighting fish because of his careless attitude towards her – in revenge he smashes her cooking equipment, the tools she needs to make a living. The acts are petty but deeply destructive and serve to illuminate the intense pressures from living hand to mouth as Bakti’s wife weeps violently in the aftermath.
What is so astounding about the doc is the unobtrusiveness of the filmmaker – somehow we are privy to the most personal and intimate moments – but the family never once twitches or shies from the camera: this is a perfect example of cinema verité and yes, what sets the filmmaker apart from his peers. Helmich has used this technique - ‘single shot camera’ as he defines it - in the rest of the trilogy to equally great effect. There are some quite breathtaking scenes, in particular when the streets are fumigated to eradicate the cockroach infestation. The camera work takes on a dreamlike quality, getting up close and personal with the fleeing insects. Elsewhere Helmich employs a similar technique as he follows the rats and cats around the Jakarta slums which gives an almost Lynchian feel – drawing us into the details and suggesting the simmering tensions of what lies beneath. The hand held camera and specially employed shooting techniques all keep feelings and closeness at the forefront of the doc. This is as intense and personal as it gets – a real master at work.
Dir. Leonard Retel Helmich. 109 mins. Indonesian (subtitled)
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