Position Among the Stars

Preceded by the internationally acclaimed “The Eye of the Day” (2001) and “The Shape of the Moon” (2004), filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich’s “Position Among the Stars” continues to expand his portrait of the hardscrabble Shamsuddin family, trying to make ends meet in a poor community in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. Taken on its own merits, Helmrich’s documentary is a cinematic marvel, both for its intricate enmeshing of personal and societal themes and for its one-of-a-kind style.

The central tension in “Stars” is really one of place: While the family’s matriarch, Rumidjah, favors her ancestral home in a remote village, her sons – Dwi and Bakti – and her granddaughter Tari prefer the more exciting opportunities in the city. Whether in the village or in the city, the Shamsuddins are confined by their poverty, and the choices that limited resources and education affords them.

“Position Among the Stars” picks up with Rumidjah following Bakti from her village to Jakarta. Besides serving as an unpaid city functionary, Bakti wiles away his days tending to his fighting fish. His wife earns a meager income running a food counter while his niece, the teenager Tari, just graduated from high school, seems utterly unfocused on her future. While Rumidjah is eager for her to continue her education, Tari’s commitment is half-hearted, motivated more by a desire for change and escape than by genuine ambition.

Still, Rumidjah presses on in her crusade to nurture her family. She puts up her own home as collateral against a college loan for Tari, a gesture that we can’t help but feel grave misgivings about. After she takes her 8-year-old grandson Bagus to her Catholic Church to pray, Rumidjah gets flak from her son Dwi, a Muslim. The moment pains us because we realize that the sole motive for Rumidjah’s church visit was to guide her grandson – a boy growing up with little parenting – towards positive values using the one resource she’s most familiar with, her religion. Another occasion shows Rumidjah lamenting Bakti’s callousness towards his wife, Sri, and his lack of life direction. Somehow, in spite of her heartbreak and disappointments, Rumidjah trudges on in the face of family breakdown and in a world so transformed that she hardly recognizes it.

What makes “Position Among the Stars” such an astonishing experience is the uncanny rhythm that Helmrich’s camerawork and Jasper Naaijkens’ editing achieve as they bring a marginalized culture dazzlingly to life. The filmmaker’s so-called Single Shot Cinema technique allows the viewer to become fully immersed in the family’s moment-by-moment interactions, as the camera travels among members seamlessly and with striking intimacy. Combined with Naaijkens’ spare, nimble editing, the fluidly moving shots of the documentary – each one absorbing gestures, silences, conversations and the textures of everyday life – produce a cinematic feast of sensory information.

“Position Among the Stars” embraces a wealth of universal themes. The crushing effects of poverty, the seduction of materialism, the death of tradition, the lure of religious militancy on the poor and teenage drift and rebellion to name a few, all are woven into the film’s richly crafted fabric. A mesmerizing odyssey across a landscape of conflicting values – rural and urban, old and young, rich and poor, political and religious – Helmrich’s film ranks as one of the documentary form’s most sublime recent achievements.

Grade: A

Directed/Written by: Leonard Retel Helmrich
Starring: Rumidjah Shamsuddin, Bakti, Tari, Sri, Dwi, Bagus, Tumisah

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