With a Sundance Grand Jury Prize all ready on his shelf (2005’s “Shape of the Moon“), Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich returns to Park City with another strong cinema-vérité doc, the final entry in his trilogy about contemporary Indonesia “Position Among the Stars.”
Chances are that many, like us, won’t be familiar with his previous two entries “The Eye of the Day” and “Shape of the Moon,” all which follow the same family through a period of twelve years. Familiarity would without a doubt enhance the experience, but the filmmaker designs ‘Position’ as a stand-alone piece commenting on modern Indonesian society, one that depicts increasing Western material influence on younger generations, poor living conditions, and an ever-widening income gap. The three leads include Rumidjah (the grandmother), Bakti (her son), and teenager Tari (his neice). We observe them in their everyday lives, with Tari gearing up for college and Bakti’s new position as “neighborhood manager.” With enough on his plate already (including setting up welfare for every member of the community), the man visits his mother in the country and begs her to return to the city for an extra hand in raising the soon-to-be high school grad, who he claims to have no morals and a penchant for ignoring her studies. Rumi agrees and her reentry into the home gets the “narrative” going. The filmmaker monitors their lives leading up to the teen’s graduation, and in-between he follows Bakti as he struggles to maintain a good life for his family while also trying to help the less fortunate in his area.
Capturing the most realistic moments possible with his signature “Single Shot Cinema” technique (get all available coverage in one take), Helmrich picks up a smorgasbord of varying moments, from the small charming instance of the grandmother picking out her son’s grey hairs (he berates her when he sees a strand of black between her fingers) to the poignant, affecting scene of the teenager in a religion class daydreaming during a lesson and avoiding her teacher’s eye contact. These people — likely used to the director’s presence after twelve long years — avoid looking or even talking to the camera as if it’s not even in attendance, their lives unfolding naturally.
Even the ugliest human behavior is caught, actions evoked out of raw emotion without thinking of consequences. At one point, Tari is at the market with a boy, enjoying a fireworks display and his company, something her uncle notices and mulls over until he sees her later at their abode. Bakti goes off on her with anger rising over her free-spirited teenage ways, something that is not only new and baffling to him, but to their entire culture. Foul language and face slaps give the argument a wincing quality, prompting an uncomfortable, look-away-from-screen reaction. Eventually the scene dissipates, and with all air let out of the balloon the irate man rambles on about his disappointment in her, lists how they have given her what she wants, and laments her seeming disinterested in her future. As the fight plays out, a friend of hers, who called earlier, sits by idly and speechless, much like us. This kind of moment could have easily been manipulated to varying degrees, pushed for dramatic effect or even amplified to make Bakti a villain. Helmrich defies this fakeness, instead displaying it in a more truthful form, thus enabling an unfiltered reflection of the occurrence for the audience and subjects alike.
Due to their low income, prospects of higher-education dwindle as the film progresses. Thankfully, in another understated scene, Tari’s grandmother opts to sell her country house in order to send her granddaughter to school, a gamble which eases everyone’s worries and provides a heart warming and promising closure to the flick. Only one question remains: is the director really done with this family? There’s enough emotion and intrigue to make frequent “7 Up“-esque successors, following the subjects’ various exploits and lensing the ever-developing Indonesian society. These are the kind of untouched examinations that never go stale, so long as you’re up for giving time to a movie devoid of infused melodrama and streamlined narrative. Maybe it’s a little on the long side, but that’s a small price to pay for a unique experience. Will Helmrich find himself with another award next week? If Bong Joon-Ho is sober, it’s very likely. [B+]