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Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | “Position Among the Stars” Director Leonard Retel Helmrich

Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "Position Among the Stars" Director Leonard Retel Helmrich

This final installment of the trilogy follows the award-winning documentaries “The Eye of the Day” and “Shape of the Moon” (winner of the World Cinema Documentary Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival) as filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich concludes his in-depth portrait of Indonesia seen through the eyes of one family living in the slums of Jakarta. Grandmother Rumidjah, a poor old Christian woman, weathers a changing society and the influence of globalization reflected in the lives of her juvenile granddaughter, Tari, and her sons, Bakti and Dwi, who are Muslims. Modern-day Indonesia is entrenched in a tug-of-war between Christianity and Islam, young and old, rich and poor, and beset by encroaching globalization that threatens the simple life that Rumidjah knows so well.

Forgoing interviews and voice-over narration, “Position Among the Stars” allows each exquisite detail to come together and construct a rich mosaic of Indonesia today. The result is poignant, breathtaking, and a singularly stellar vérité triumph. [Synopsis courtesy of Sundance Institute]

“Position Among the Stars”
World Cinema Documentary Competition
Director: Leonard Retel Helmrich
Screenwriter: Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich, Leonard Retel Helmrich
Producer: Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich
Cinematographer: Ismail Fahmi Lubish, Leonard Retel Helmrich
Editor: Jasper Naaijkens
Music: Danang Faturahman, Fahmy Al-attas
Photographer: Jan Karel Lameer
Sound Designer: Ranko Paukovic

Responses courtesy of “Position Among the Stars” Director Leonard Retel Helmrich.

From fiction to documentary…

As a juvenile I saw the films of Sergio Leone, like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “Once Upon a Time in the West.” It really moved me that you can tell a story by using camera movements. At first I wasn’t aware that it was the camera movements that inspired me to become a filmmaker, but when I became a filmmaker and moved from fiction to documentary I learned myself how to make camera movements by intuition. And that opened for me a vast unexplored aria in film language. I stopped to make camera movements in anticipation of the editing and I began to edit in celebration of the camera movements.

Using human drama to examine the bigger picture…

“Position Among the Stars” director Leonard Retel Helmrich. Image courtesy of Sundance.

After 32 years of dictatorship Indonesia became a democracy in 1998. This triggered a lot of changes in a short time span. For a country like Indonesia, which is the fourth largest county in the world, the changes made there have also a global effect. And since human drama is globally recognized by all human beings of all cultures, I focus in my films on the ordinary people of Indonesia. They are the people who have to deal with those changes like globalization, religious fundamentalism and the politics of the county. By seeing the human drama we will understand the effects of those changes on ordinary people.

“Single-Shot Cinema”…

In order to be able to capture real human drama I developed a way of filming that enables you to operate the camera by intuition while being inside the dramatic event I’m filming in order to see it from the inside. The most important thing is that I have to shoot the happening in one “single shot” using camera movements to interpret the event. The essence of camera movement is to gradually change your point of interest. That is why the reason to movie has to be inside the frame. Quick panning or sweeping camera movements for instance are not done. It’s better to use orbital camera movements, like keeping the point of interest in the frame while circling around it so the next point of interest can enter the frame organically. In doing so I don’t miss the nuances of the human drama that is happening. These nuances are important, because they enable you to condense the single-shot scene in the editing into a shorter time span without losing the rhythm of the scene. This way of filming is called “Single-Shot Cinema,” inspired by the film theories of the French film critic from the 1950’s Andre Bazin. It’s a re-interpretation of Direct Cinema and Cinema Vérité in this time of many technical developments that have an influence on the development of the film language.

A different approach…

We had 300 hours of footage to choose from.  And when you have that much footage there are always some lucky moments in the footage. If just one per cent were the lucky moments you would still end up with three hours of footage. To line up those scenes together to make 110 minute film story took us about 12 months.

We wanted to a clearer story line than we had in the former two films of the trilogy “Eye of the Day” and “Shape of the Moon.” Our biggest challenge was how to build a more character driven story out of intuitively, poetic shot footage of real life situations, without using a voice-over over the interviews.

Fiction vs. documentary…

The audience watching the film will have the feeling that the camera and the camera operator are invisible as in a fiction film. But it is a documentary because all the dramatic scenes are real life situations shot and edited in a way as if it was a fiction film.

What inspired me as a documentary filmmaker are mostly fiction films. With that perception I try to recognize in real life situations where the narrative story line would lead to. And if I have the feeling that I can predict the happenings in the real life situation, I get inspired to anticipate with my camera what is going to happen in the real life situation.

Working on for future…

At the moment I’m working on a few different documentary subjects. One is a fiction film – a remake of an classical movie.

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]


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