Position Among The Stars

Position Among The Stars

***1/2

Reviewed by: Emma Slawinski

Position Among The Stars is Leonard Retel Helmrich’s third instalment in a trilogy of documentaries that follows one Indonesian family over the last decade, through the fall of President Suharto and into a period of rapid economic growth.

As the film opens, grandmother Rumija is about to leave her home in the countryside and return to Jakarta with son Bakti to help look after his adopted orphan niece Tari, as she finishes high school.


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The family are captivating subject matter, the strong personalities frequently tugging in different directions, so that the film is never short of drama. Rumija anchors the film, a diminutive, elderly lady with an unflagging vitality, who never shies away from speaking her mind. She despairs of her layabout son, and invests all of her energies on granddaughter Tari, who she dotes on despite her frequent ingratitude.

As the documentary progresses, the focus is increasingly on Tari as the family’s great hope for the future, as Rumija sums up plainly: “We all failed but one of us must become a winner.” The tension between their expectations and Tari’s indolence and lack of ambition intensifies throughout the second half of the film.

At the same time, the religious rift in Indonesian public life is represented in microcosm as Bakti, a convert to Islam, and Rumija, a devoted Christian, try to tug Bakti’s young son in different directions of faith, and Tari struggles to gain acceptance from a Muslim educational foundation.

Taking in a number of settings, from the family’s slum dwelling, to the highways where beggars work amid slow-moving traffic, to mosques and churches, and massive, glittering malls, Helmrich offers a complex, even dizzying panorama of a country riddled with conflicts and disparities.

Helmrich is known for his distinctive approach to filming – for which he has coined the term ‘single shot cinema’ – in which he captures individual events continuously using inventive camera angles and movements. This approach doesn’t so much give a fly-on-the-wall effect, as make you feel you are actually sitting on the sofa with the family, or riding pillion on a motorbike with them through Jakarta. It delivers an extreme sort of intimacy, but this is not without its problems, frequently calling into question the extent to which a documentary distorts its subjects by the very act of being present.

This sense of discomfort with the filming methods persists, but is perhaps at is strongest during some breath-stopping “how did he do that?” sequences: a painter at work on a mosque’s minaret, a worker crossing an enormous railway bridge on the thinnest of ledges, and, particularly, an exhilarating sequence that chases Bakti’s little son as he races through the alleyways, trailing two shirts behind him in the air like makeshift kites.

The artistry of shots like this that at several points made me wonder whether some scenes were staged. This is something – I read afterwards – that the director denies, in which case he has achieved a feat of camerawork and storytelling, but is perhaps a victim of his own success, in that the lingering doubt couldn’t help but colour my enjoyment and acceptance of the film.

Reviewed on: 05 Feb 2012
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The effects of globalisation in Indonesia’s rapidly changing society ripple into the life of a poor Christian woman living in the slums of Jakarta with her Muslim sons and teenage granddaughter.
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Director: Leonard Retel Helmrich

Year: 2010

Runtime: 115 minutes

Country: Netherlands


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