Title: Position Among the Stars
Director: Leonard Retel Helmrich
A remarkable snapshot of underclass life, love, humor and despair, “Position Among the Stars”, which picked up the Special World Cinema Documentary Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and recently played at the Los Angeles Film Festival, is an utterly absorbing and strikingly humane nonfiction film that, in non-judgmental nor holier-than-thou fashion, locates the universality of human struggle in charting the tumultuous ups and downs of an extended Indonesian family trying to work their way out of the slums.
Dutch director Leonard Retel Helmrich takes as his subjects the Shamsuddins, a Jakarta family whom he previously followed as their country shook off the three-decade rule of President Suharto (2001’s “The Eye of the Day”) and experienced a rise in Islamic power and influence (2004’s “Shape of the Moon”). While there’s obviously some overlap, one need not be at all familiar with those movies, as “Position Among the Stars”, after a bit of a slow start, digs into Indonesia’s fast-changing society and various sociocultural issues and problems in a very relatable manner. Grandmother Rumidjah is openly Christian, but her son Bakti converts to Islam, he confesses, because of peer pressure. Getting a government job processing welfare payments, Bakti tries to scrape together enough money to help put his niece, Tari, through college, but finds himself hiding “luxury items” (like a television) when fellow bureaucrats come to check on and process a similar claim for eldest son Dwi.
From scripted films like Mira Nair’s “Salaam Bombay!” and recent Oscar winner “Slumdog Millionaire” to documentaries like Abbas Kiarostami’s “ABC Africa”, there is of course a rich history of movies that seek to soak up as much grungy, grimy slum-land atmosphere as they can, frequently to illustrate just how much better Western audiences have it. Helmrich, though, neither luxuriates nor shies away from his setting. He simply presents it as it is. There’s the grotesque spectacle of roaches scattering to and fro, and a rat and cat squaring off, but “Position Among the Stars” is also often quite funny, as when Bakti and Tari conspire to have a joke at Rumidjah’s expense about Tari’s high school exams. The film shows that, issues of comfortability and living condition notwithstanding, family dynamics are remarkably the same the world over.
In the Shamsuddin family, Helmrich, who also serves as one of the movie’s two camera operators, has a group of subjects who are so completely at ease with his presence as to give “Position Among the Stars” the complete and total feeling of an exhaustively staged drama. There are no weepy, direct-address confessionals, nor sideways glances at the camera’s lens. Everything plays out in straightforward fashion. When Bakti physically loses it after his wife Sri kills the beta goldfish he was training to fight to use in street betting matches, or Rumidjah says to Bakti, “You failed in life, why should [Tari] have to fail too?” we experience these not as contrived explosions, but the uneasy natural product of months of simmering tensions.
Abetting this is the film’s stunning visual style and editing. Its savvy, engaging cinematographic expression is best characterized as conforming to the single-shot methodology of the French New Wave, which means that dozens of real-life moments are pieced together to create a grander temporal reality. The deeper the film progresses, then, the more we know and feel about these characters. An intimate, achingly real and heartfelt portrait of some of the bonds and binds that we all share, “Position Among the Stars” is a first-rate third-world journey worth taking.
Written by: Brent Simon