For twelve years, filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich has followed an Indonesian family living in the slums of Jakarta. Just as in his previous two documentaries The Eye of the Day (2001) and Shape of the Moon (2004), Retel continues to show us the underlying patterns of life in Indonesia, offering viewers a microcosm revealing the most important issues in the country’s fast-changing society: corruption, conflict between religions, gambling addiction, the generation gap, and the growing difference between poor and rich.

Trilogy finale completes remarkable family portrait.

BRISBANE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Leonard Retel Helmrich’s final instalment of his sociological trilogy is another study of modern Indonesian life through the prism of a single family unit, and it once again confirms that the Dutch-born auteur is one of the great talents in the world of factual filmmaking.

Helmrich dubs his technique 'Single Shot Cinema’, and in practice, the director has come to embody the very definition of the words that inspired him, uttered by famed critic and Cahiers du Cinema editor André Bazin: 'The camera is a projection of hand and eye, almost a living part of the operator, instantly in tune with his awareness."

In 2001, Helmrich first visited the Sjamsuddins – matriarch Rumidja, her sons Bakti and Dwi and granddaughter Theresia (or Tari) – in The Eye of the Day, bringing the story of Indonesia’s struggling poor to vivid life. In 2004, the director revisited the family in The Shape of the Moon, this time highlighting the fundamental shifts in a Christian/Muslim neighbourhood post 9-11 and earning the Sundance Grand Jury prize. Now, after a break of five years, Helmrich finds the family resentful and struggling with daily life as they crumble under the strains of ambition and expectation far beyond their financial means.

Rumidja travels with Bakti from her rural village to Jakarta, where he has been raising Tari as his own (she was orphaned in 1995). She’s graduated high school and has her sights set on going to college with her friends – a dream shared by Rumidja, who is saddened by her sons’ lack of formal education and has pinned her hopes on Tari establishing a career and climbing into the middle-class. But Bakti does not have the money to fund Tari’s tertiary education and resents Rumidja for perpetuating dreams of a fanciful existence. Tari, at times petulant and abrasive, is exploring life as a young woman on the verge, bringing her into direct conflict with the short-tempered Bakti. And Rumidja, espousing old-school Christian values in a Muslim household, begins to bow under the pressures of their big-city life.

The film has a wonderful aesthetic quality, made by an artist close to his subject’s world. (Helmrich also served as DOP on Australian Cathy Henkel’s acclaimed Indonesian-set 'enviro-mentary', The Burning Season.) Helmrich’s camera gets down with the rats, cats and cockroaches in the gutters and sewers of Jakarta, and then, in an instant, hangs from the spire of a cathedral with a tradesman painting the roof; in one beautifully-crafted transition, Helmrich dissolves from Tari’s despondent face into the spinning wheel of a cab, before gliding his camera into the cabin of the vehicle.

Like Michael Apted’s 7Up series, Helmrich’s return visits allowed him to examine minute change with an insider’s eye. The hand dealt to the lives and dreams of the Sjamsuddins in particular, and Indonesia in general, demands that a sure hand and an educated mind is at the helm. Though the struggle is at times a universal one (a guardian’s frustration with the course of their child’s life; an old soul’s reflection on the outcome of her life’s hopes), Position Among the Stars also manages to address a nation’s social miasma and its people’s ongoing faith that they (and their nation) can rise above it.


1 hour 51 min