With this tender and intimate portrait, Dutch-born filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich completes a documentary triptych on life in his adopted homeland of Indonesia. As in the first two instalments, ‘Eye of the Day’ (2001) and ‘Shape of the Moon’ (2004), Helmrich’s roving camera follows the everyday exploits of ageing matriarch Rumidjah and her wayward family, who have moved from the country to seek a better life in the sprawling capital city, Jakarta.
While the first two films focused on political and social upheaval as experienced by this ‘average’ family, ‘Position Among the Stars’ explores how they deal with the global economic crisis. The short answer is, not well: Rumidjah’s feckless son Bakti has turned to training fighting fish to earn a crust, while his wife Sri struggles to feed the family. Bakti’s brother Dwi is claiming welfare, so he has to hide the PlayStation when the authorities pop round for an inspection. And most disconcertingly of all, Rumidjah is so desperate for her granddaughter Tari to attend university that she’ll go to troubling lengths to find the money -– never mind that the girl is selfish, arrogant and seemingly disinterested in pursuing higher education.
Helmrich again uses his pioneering technique of ‘single shot cinema’, a looping, gliding, seemingly weightless camera style which offers the viewer a direct portal into the lives of his subjects. It’s used to most glorious effect in a sequence showing Dwi’s four-year-old son running wild (in a Batman T-shirt) around the narrow streets and curling corridors of their bustling Jakarta neighbourhood. But the film is crammed with remarkable imagery, from its opening shot of an apparent field of stars slowly coalescing into dewdrops on rice stalks, to its final, breathtaking image of the night sky.
There are moments where Helmrich’s camera could feel somewhat intrusive, even exploitative: it’s hard not to feel like a voyeur during some of the family’s more heated arguments. But such sequences are key to that unique sense of unhindered access which Helmrich provides: nothing here is off limits. The result is a singularly intimate and honest experience, as powerful bonds are formed between ‘us’, the viewer, and ‘them’, the subjects.
As they act wilfully, wisely, foolishly and emotionally, our feelings towards them are constantly challenged, questioned and upended – as they would be in ‘real’ life. The title may refer directly to a nursery rhyme which Rumidjah hums in the closing scenes, but it’s also a deft summation of the film’s central theme: why are we all so desperately searching for our own corner of the world when, in universal terms, we’re in exactly the same position?