By Marc Glassman
Leonard Retel Helmrich, director
w/Rumidjah (grandmother), Bakti (her son), Tari (her granddaughter)
Leonard Retel Helmrich concludes his masterful trilogy on an Indonesian family in crisis with Position Among the Stars, which has already garnered the Grand Prize as a feature documentary at the Netherland’s acclaimed IDFA festival and the famed US indie fest Sundance.
A superb cinematographer, Helmrich has developed a unique portable camera, allowing him to create a style entitled “single shot cinema.” It gives the gifted filmmaker better access to the actions and dialogue of people in moments of intimacy or high stress: he can move in and out, playing with camera angles, allowing him the chance to dramatize cinema verité in subtle and revealing ways.
The Dutch director whose family heritage is mainly Indonesian has developed a tremendous rapport with his subjects over the course of the past decade as he made Shape of the Moon (2004) and Eye of the Day (2001). His characters are presented in novelistic detail, with complexity and contradictions intact. The audience truly gets to know the strong-willed yet compassionate grand-matriarch Rumidjah, her weak, diplomatic son Bakti and quick-witted granddaughter Tari.
The film is mainly set in Jakarta, where Bakti is a neighbourhood councilor. While he acts as a liaison between the locals and the city, Bakti’s job is purely honourific. He makes some money training fighting fish until a confrontation between himself and his wife puts the kibosh to that endeavour. Bakti and his brother have converted to Islam to the disappointment of their passionately committed Christian mother. Their decision is a pragmatic one that has given them access to mainstream culture in this populous Muslim nation.
The drama in Position Among the Stars revolves around the future of Tari, a willful teenager who has just graduated high school. While Bakti and Rumidjah want her to go to college, she isn’t so sure. But Helmrich’s cinema is less about plot and more about day-to-day life. The experience in this film is immersive: you can surrender to Helmrich’s beautifully composed scenes and feel the intimacy of his protagonists. A masterpiece, this is a film that demands complete attention–but absolutely rewards the viewer who makes that commitment.