Position Among The Stars
Directed by Leonard Retel Helmrich
September 15-21 at MoMA
Leonard Retel Helmrich's Position Among The Stars should be essential viewing for anyone curious to know what the rapidly modernizing "second world" actually looks like: motorcycles, bootlegged t-shirts, plastic Tupperware containers, cell phones, and scores of dead cockroaches. Indonesia—the fourth biggest country in the world, and the nation with the largest Muslim population—has been the topic of Helmrich's life work, a trilogy of docs culminating here. (All three films are being screened at MoMA as the "Indonesia Trilogy" in their ContemporAsian film series.)
He has followed three generations of the same family in Jakarta: a Christian grandmother, who grew up under totalitarianism; her two middle-aged sons, principally a former student protestor-cum-low-level-village-bureaucrat named Bakti, and her granddaughter Tari.
Orphaned in the 1990s, Tari is a symbol of the country's exploded industry-of-sense-of-self. Her interests, to the elders' chagrin, include texting, taking photos at the mall, talking about boys, and just plain chillin'. Sound familiar? During one nailbiting moment, she embarrassedly refuses to take a horse-drawn carriage—shunning tradition—to her own high school graduation. Her response begins with genuine surprise, but soon become a kind of atomic fury, engulfing her dressed-up grandmother and uncle and nearly sabotaging the entire event.
Sizing up most documentaries is a matter of footage vs. filmmaking; all too often, terrific research and material are diced into infinity, paved over with patronizing music, or greased up with pretentious voiceovers. Retel Helmrichs avoids most of these problems, but his approach is worth questioning: keeping his lightweight camera mounted on a gliding platform, he essentially uses it as a video input for his own eyesight, fluidly careening around the slums—and often, the people onscreen—like a maniac horsefly. If you liked Emmanuel Lubezki's Steadicam workouts inTree Of Life, then this is a more-than-worthy example of the real thing in action on the fly.
The totality of trust granted to Retel Helmrichs by the family over the last nine years allows the director to pick up on some truly extraordinary stuff, but this ostentatious style has its drawbacks. Consider a scene where, following a horrible fight between Bakti and his long-suffering wife over his gambling addiction, an 8-year old nephew makes a run for it. As he churns through the slum's cramped alleyways, the camera matches him in a full-throttle reverse track, cutting every time he turns a corner to a new angle. It's framed as a moment of emotional liberation from a horrible home life, edited like a slick commercial.
Then there is the scene where Bakti and his brother must clear out the family house before a government inspector arrives to establish "proof of poverty" and, thus, their eligibility for government aid. The place is strewn with packaged, recyclable cardboard, and most notably, they conceal a TV/video game system used by the 8-year-old (complete with what appears to be an Indonesian knockoff of Grand Theft Auto.) When the brother indicates where he gets cooking water, the director cuts on-cue to a rat sitting in a stream behind the house. The verité influences are clear, but minor attempts like these to shoehorn a totally compelling subject—in this case, life in a simultaneously devout and aggressively secularizing country—into pat dramaturgy can be a little self-sabotaging.