James Reviews Leonard Retel Helmrich’s Position Among the Stars [Sundance 2011]

Leonard Retel Helmrich has been chronicling the lives of Bachtiar “Bakti” Becker and his mother, Rumidjah Sjamsuddin for three films and over ten years, showing their lives change drastically. In “The Eye of the Day”(2001), we saw them coping with the unrest in their country when President Suharto departed. In “Shape of the Moon” (2004), we are introduced to a new central figure, Bakti’s niece Tari, while Rumidjah finally retired back to her village. Now we are in 2011 and we have “Position Among the Stars”, which begins with a brief montage of images from the first two films and we’re brought up to speed with what has happened in the 7 years since we last visited the family.

Rumidjah has been struggling in her village, which is almost completely deserted now. Bakti is seen asking his mother to come back to help take care of Tari, who is now almost leaving high school. Tari is an underachiever, proud of it, and this is sadly not good for the hopes of Rumidjah, who hoped for Tari to be the first in the family to attend college. Bakti is neighborhood manager now, which doesn’t stop him from having a lazy streak. He also raises Siamese fighting fish, which helps his gambling. This isn’t good news for his new wife, Sriwyati, who just wants the best for them both.

This was a bit of a surprise for me, considering I tracked down the first two films in Helmrich’s trilogy. You see this family, growing up yet almost staying exactly the same throughout the ten years we’ve seen them on screen. In “Stars”, Helmrich never parodies this family but shows their struggle, by showing their residence, roaches and rats running throughout. He never takes the camera off these animals, but it’s shown as a way of life and the norm, so to speak. It’s showing as life goes on, these people and these animals live side by side, not because their filthy people (which compared to others around their family, they take their house more seriously), but because it’s the circle of life.

These three are a bit more like characters, which isn’t a knock on them or Helmrich at all. Instead, it’s a commentary on documentaries in general, where no matter how natural people are supposed to be, they will always act a bit more differently on camera. After ten years with a lens on them, it’s understandable why they would almost be trumped up caricatures as to who they really are. I feel the most for Sriwyati, who is a new addition to the story, and in a darkly comic scene later on, we see to what the extent of Bakti’s gambling and laziness can get him.

It’s a raw looking film, but I find that an endearing part of the whole package. This film is a candid inside look at a family from Jakarta, something most people in the Western world are not used to at all. Outside of “Slumdog Millionaire”, this of course is a more intimate look at the day to day life of a lower class family, struggling a bit but keeping it together. Personally, it’s a film that more people might have in common than they think.


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