Images from Position Among the Stars

A worker spraying insecticide is framed among the dewdrops in the rice field.

Rumidjah and Tumisah sing a childhood song about the dewdrops in the country. The camera circles them.

In Tumisah's bamboo house, a repurposed electric light burns. This image demonstrates Helmrich's great sensitivity to symbolic comparisons within single shot compositions. The light bulb repurposed for use in a village without electricity also demonstrates the dignity and inventiveness and practicality of the rural people.

Rumidjah and her son, Bakti, take a motorbike/rail vehicle to catch the train, riding backwards and framed by the mountain and the Indonesian landscape. This shot has been used frequently in reviews of the film.

An armless beggar in Jakarta smiles as with great dexterity she talks on her cell phone.

A crowd gathers to catch the Muslim alms money tossed into the air in the poor neighborhoods.

Tari and her friends have a different idea of stardom; they sing a rock song, "one day I will be a star..." The conflicting meanings for the generations and the material circumstances of these people that is reflected in the title of the film is that for Rumidjah, a "position amongst the stars" has always meant a place within her community and her environment. For Bakti, it means raising income and his class status. And for Tari, it means gaining recognition within a global celebrity-defined pop culture.

Tari is failing her interview test for Muslim scholarship support for her education. She did not know the principles of Muslim belief. What will her future hold?

Tumisah's wisdom about possessions and the upheaval in Rumidjah's family.

Tumisah and Rumidjah look up at the sky and sing a song about the stars, faces illuminated by their lanterns. The song bookends the film, recalling at the end the opening song about the dew drops.

Concluding the circle of the film: the stars as seen from the country and the electrical towers leading to Jakarta.


Position Among the Stars

In the beginning the story is about a family in a transnational crisis. Here are the words that open Position Among the Stars, appearing in white text over a black field of what appears to be stars:

"One Family
Three Generations
Facing a Global Economy."

Stars begin to move right to left. Sounds arise of insects and sprinkler and then of a hand pump sprayer. Fade up from black on to a scene in which a left to right moving camera reveals green rice shoots in the foreground and horizon of palm trees in the background. The stars are revealed to be dew and sprinkler drops on the rice shoots.

As the camera continues slowly moving right, a man wearing an Indonesian rice paddy hat moves across the field, applying insecticide spray from his back-mounted spray reservoir. He is beautifully shot and framed, moving from left to right across the middle ground of the scene exactly at the upper 3/5 horizontal axis of the shot. As he moves he is variously reframed in the shot between the bejeweled backlit green rice shoots in the foreground that are large enough in the foreground of the frame to contain, connect and almost embrace him within both their rootedness to the natural earth and source of their growth, and their reach to the sky that they both point to and seek sunlight and energy from. The framing also effectively freezes the moments of his manual and mechanical labor. The near balletic movements of his free arm moving overhead with the pump handle and the pulling it down are cinematically and thematically captured.

Workers hang from the electrical towers leading to Jakarta. A spider in the opening montage. The film is full of small animals shot as carefully within a single shot as the main characters.
The dragonfly in the opening montage. The ladybugs resemble dewdrops.

The labor of the rural working class in Indonesia and its interconnection to the land and the sky is simply and beautifully celebrated at the same time that the stars are revealed to be dewdrops. Some of the drops are frosted with insecticide. Irony laces the pastoral, but the coexistence of and contradictions between natural beauty, human labor, and modern chemicals reside in this image held carefully in balance for our attention by the artful filming. Artistic technique itself is a fourth element in the composition.

The next shot is a cut to an extreme close up of a spider in the field glowing in the backlight of the rising sun and firmly connected to and placed within its own web of glistening water droplet stars. The camera follows the spider up its web toward the sky, glowing ever more greatly as it rises closer to the sun. Then there is a cut to a dragon fly flying left to right across the sky and then with an advance cue of the sound of metal moving there is a wide shot again of the countryside, focusing on two tiny silhouetted humans perched on the more severe and calculated geometries of a rising transmission tower backgrounded by completed ones extending into the distance. It is a gesture toward what we later discover to be the far-off metropolis of Jakarta that is extending its technological reach to the homes of these rural farmers throughout the nation. This establishes one of the film’s major themes: the intrusion of global technologies and economies into the heart of our characters' traditional rural homes and lives. The camera pushes in on the precariously perched workers and then there is a cut to an extreme close up of two ladybugs perched on seed laden green rice shoots. Their weight and movement creates a spring and rhythm in the rice shoots.

At this point we begin to hear, in a lovely sound advance and sound and image juxtaposition, the voice of a woman singing, and as the ladybugs take off from the rice shoots we hear the song lyrics: "Little dew star, don’t become too big," And cut to the smiling medium close up of the woman singing on a dirt road in the country—"In the dry and rainy season."

She turns in the shot to the woman following her and embraces her, bringing her forward with one arm encouraging her to join in the song. "You keep the rice paddies wet."

Here the director and cinematographer exercise the first orbiting steadywing shots of the film as he moves from right to left around the first woman to the second woman, replacing the positions of foreground and background in the process, but at the same time binding the two with the camera as the first woman bound them with her embrace and invitation to share the singing of the song. "The harvest can fill a big barn." The camera then walks with them and moves constantly, rising high above them:"Our rice paddies are being"—“What?”/"Being planted." /"Hurray!"

In this way the two old women, the main representatives of the spirit of the film, are introduced together with the main theme as articulated in the title: "Position among the Stars," and the circling positioning of the intimate ubiquitous camera.

Rumidjah Shamsjuddin, the 74 year old matriarch of the Shamsjuddin family, and Rumidjah’s dearest lifelong friend Tumisah are featured in all three films of the trilogy. Over the course of three films viewers have seen Rumidjah and her family experience the major transitions of their times:

  • from rural to urban environments,
  • from dictatorship to liberalized but authoritarian democracy,
  • from a secular to fundamentalist Muslim-dominated culture, and
  • from a more localized to a more globalized economy.

This final film in the trilogy, Position Among the Stars, focuses on three generations of the family. Rumidjah lives in her ancestral bamboo frame home in a poor rural village, close to her old friend, Tumisah. Her son, Bakti and her grand-daughter, Tari live in the complicated cityscape of Jakarta.

Through the film’s strikingly personal cinema verité/ direct cinema style, the audience experiences the story of how these Indonesian family members face and struggle with the political, religious, and economic pressures and contradictions of their changing world. The intimacy and artistry—and global resonance—of this portrayal is so well-achieved cinematically that Position Among the Stars and its predecessors have won almost every major festival award available throughout their run, including both the Best in Festival award at IDFA and at Sundance in 2010 and 2011. The cinematic and storytelling artistry of Retel-Helmrich is so highly regarded that his trilogy was selected for exhibition at MOMA in September, 2011. The New York Times reviewer said of the film:

"Engrossing, poetic and often very funny, Position, like its predecessors, uses the lens of a single family to view the tumult of an entire country."[25] [open endnotes in new window]

The visuals capture, in the mirror of car windows, for example, and the story inhabits both the ahistorical and social time. We feel the seeming timelessness of natural beauty, stars, and the poetry of the cinematic look. But the film also examines the historical causes of the family's conflicts—the necessary overthrow of Suharto and the rise of Muslim cultural power. The very title of the film ironically juxtaposes historical and “natural" time. The family must, it seems, fight desperately for a position—economic and social, achievable through education, they believe. They seek a position "among the stars" that will enable the entire family to escape the harsh realities of Indonesian history. Yet the film portrays such escapes visually not as economic successes, but in moments of literally seeing the stars, poetic moments that remind us in images that money isn't everything.

These films represent a breakthrough in the now classic direct-cinema techniques of documentary film. The primary elements of the film's achievement begin with the close attention of Leonard Retel-Helmrich and his sister Hetty Retel-Helmrich Naijkens to the characters, story, and cinema verité /direct cinema process.

Rumidjah, Tari, and Bakti in the Jakarta house. Bakti raises fighting fish that he thinks will win some money. The shot suggests a relation between the distortions of the economy and the distortion of his face.
Bakti's wife, Sri, maintains a food stand to help support the family. Tari is walking in her red graduation dress with Rumidjah and Bakti in Jakarta. The family's hopes for the future and to improving their position rest on Tari's education. But how will they afford it?
Rumidjah watches the cockroaches scurry in front of an insecticide fog on a neighborhood street, sprayed to control dengue fever. Everyone is exposed to the poison, including the children, who play in the fog. The cockroach she has been watching (during a lengthy live shot of him) succumbs to the spray.

The filmmakers lived near or with the Shamsjuddin family for up to six months of each of the twelve years and filmed the family’s daily life for up to six hours every day. Their goal of capturing the depth of human character and story in turn led to Leonard’s deeply theoretical, aesthetic and technical cinematic education and practice that followed from the work of Andre Bazin and resulted in a radical new human-centered technical and aesthetic style that Leonard called "single-shot cinema." The style dictates that observational cinema should be filmed in close, moving, and free proximity to the subject. It relies on Leonard’s small, simple and practical “steady-wing” camera mounting device, new hi-functioning auto-setting cameras, and practice and facility with the technique and style.

This results in the film's amazing artistry, images, and apparently unaffected natural subject behavior. In one memorable shot, the camera glides behind, above, beneath, over and around the child, Bagus, a young nephew who is joyously and mischievously dashing through the narrow alleys and open sewers of his crowded Jakarta neighborhood with the neighbors' pilfered laundry, the shirts flying gloriously behind his outstretched hands. The camera perfectly captures the spirit and joy of his act in a way that is complementary and appropriate to the moment.[27] The shots are filmed with the aid of simple but inventive devices in addition to the steady-wing camera support—bamboo cranes. The same can be said for a shot that follows a working class man crossing a railway trestle on a narrow plank a thousand feet above the valley below. The camera follows him, swoops out from him, in close to him, and then directly over him, without hesitating a moment or missing a beat of movement. It captures for audiences both the extraordinary quality of this dizzying, visionary experience for the viewer and the ordinary quality of it to the worker (who helped film the shots with a camera mounted on a helmet he was wearing.).[28] While these bravura shots dramatically stand out and punctuate and celebrate these lives, mastery of the style lies in the vast majority of shots that exercise the same care, expertise and style in the intimate environs of the domestic space of these characters.

For example, the camera circles sympathetically the scene of wreckage around Bakti's wife, Siri, after he has pushed over the food stand where she was cooking and trying to help out with the family's income. She cries as she holds up the bent and ruined pots. Such understated virtuosity can be seen in the climactic scene in the film, which takes place in Bakti’s small cramped household toward the end of the film. Rumidjah’s son Bakti suddenly erupts in anger, strikes her granddaughter, Tari, pushes Tari into her tiny bedroom and down onto the bed and screams at her. This is in response, we find out, to Tari’s FaceBook and YouTube-promulgated flirtations and her physical contact with a young boy. It’s a clear violation of propriety in this Muslin community and household. Rumidjah witnesses and is caught in the middle of the outburst. The camera navigates the scene within the constricted environment of the tiny household like another one of the characters—familiar with the environment. In the process it records Bakti’s violence, anger and then concern; Tari’s insolence, irreverence, hurt, and then humiliation; and Rumidjah’s devastation.

The key elements of the greater story emerge, collide, converge, and climax here. At heart this film and the trilogy about these three generations has dealt with family survival and re-generation in the face of the profound social, in this case political, religious and economic pressures. Tari is Rumidjah’s and Bakti’s hope, especially through her education. Bakti has long since converted from Christianity to Islam to facilitate it. Rumidjah has mortgaged her house to pay for it, in her beloved village with its daily life and her childhood friend. Tari now has threatened this hope with her youth, pop-cultural fascination, materialism, and forbidden physical encounter with a boy that threatens both her education and reputation in the Muslin community. Tari has become a global teenager, a figure all too familiar to the audience, almost a stereotype (if this were a fiction film, one could complain that the problem of modern youth is all too painfully frequent in recent Indonesian films).[29]

Bakti tells her that she cannot violate the Muslim laws and traditional cultural mores, that she cannot violate her grandmother’s financial risk and support. He says that she is smarter then any of them, that she is the only one capable of a higher education, and she is the hope they have to advance their family’s lives. The camera then moves in to Rumidjah’s face as she listens to the last of this. It moves closer and closer as she struggles with the weight and stress of all that has occurred and her own inability to resolve the issues in her family and Jakarta—and her decision to leave the city. Her brow moves and the camera fades to black in preparation for the final scene featuring the family’s trip to the train station, past the beggars and poorest of the poor and past the palatial neighborhoods and richest of the rich. Tari looks out of the window in which these scenes of Jakarta pass by as reflections. In the final scene of the film Rumidjah returns to the ancestral village, home, and friend she left behind in the first scene. This last scene echoes the first. But rather than dew drops that appear to be stars, we witness real stars. And instead of a childhood song about dew drops, we hear a childhood song about stars and the desire to find a position among the stars.

Tari and her friends at the mall taking cell phone photos. The contradictions unleashed by western consumerist display and technology here are a significant aspect of the film's analysis. Tari's friend tries on a blue contact lens to have blue eyes. "Better than brown eyes," Tari says.
Sri sobs while cleaning up her kitchen, damaged by the outraged Bakti's burst of anger. She killed some of his fighting fish because his obsession was making him neglect the family. Bakti has found out about Tari's violation of Muslim rules, and he slaps her when he comes home.
Bakti talks to her from outside the door of her room. Rumidjah listens and decides she must go home.
A begging monkey on the way to the train, where Tari will say goodbye to Rumidjah.  
Tari's face in the car window fades to Rumidjah in the train.  

In the last scene Rumidjah is re-united with Tumisah. That night they take a walk into the fields, to look at the stars, as they have done since they were children. Tumisah, whom Leonard and Hetty describe as the voice of wisdom in the story, says:

"Don’t think of wealth all the time, Rumidjah. Possessions take possession of you."[30]

Rumidjah nods and says, "You cannot see the stars in Jakarta."

As they look up to see the Southern Cross and a Shooting Star, they sing, as they did in the beginning of the film, a traditional children’s song remembered from childhood.

You little star way up high
There you are shining in the sky
I would love to fly and dance with you
and to find my place among the stars.

And yet, much as this seems to resolve the narrative according to Tumisah's wisdom, it is the expression of a utopian, immortal desire ("I would love") rather than the desire for a "position" that animates the family. This latter desire, this hope for an economic rescue with its share of desperation, not only characterizes the family’s historical situation, but in this third film of the trilogy demonstrates how the economic and religious pressures they are now experiencing have replaced the significance of the revolution against Suharto that opened the first film and first motivated documentarist Retel Helmrich's interest.

Position among the Stars focuses on family conflict. But does it do so to continue hiding the horrors of the violent Indonesian past, with the hundreds of thousands of bodies left buried or thrown into the sea during Suharto's regime still unremembered? Should the nostalgia be for these dead rather than for the stars of childhood? Perhaps. But Retel Helmrich has directed a powerful reading of the historical dialectic that catches this family up in the most intimate spaces. Their yearning, however mistaken, is finally invested in Tari, in the future, rather than in nostalgia for returning to the village. The latter would perhaps also entail confronting the terribleness of those past days, left unredeemed after the overthrow of Suharto, together with the revolutionary dreams of Bakti, his family, and Retel Helmrich himself. Thus the ambiguity of the title. Is it about a timeless position within the natural world, suggested by long shots of animals, dewdrops, and stars? Is it a position among the stars of cinema and reality television so admired by Tari? Or the stardom produced by the extraordinary artistry of the camera's single-shot attentiveness? Or a position among the stars of progress and economic success, the idea that obsesses the family, but that contradicts so much that they value?

This final film in the trilogy about the Indonesian family was produced by Scarabee Films, the production company of the Helmrich family, and also by several other institutions: academic (for example, Harvard University), public (e.g. the Netherlands Fund for Film) and film industry (the Sundance Institute). This prestigious support points to an interest in the humanistic and artistic contribution made by Helmrich's filmmaking more than to any political argument he might be making. His portrait of a family in Indonesia is less journalistic and more novelistic than the other two films discussed in this paper.[31] That said, an early review in Variety thought the film too "low-budget" to play outside the Netherlands.[32] The family featured in the films, according to producer Hetty Naijkens,

"were present at the premiere in the Erasmushuis in Indonesia and they said they like the film. Actually they look at the film as a home video and not as a film or documentary. They are not aware of the fact that they are ‘world-famous.’ Only Tari knows about it because she has a connection with the world by Facebook."[33]

The documentary has earned its reputation through the screenings where it has been presented. Like Budrus and Green Wave, this film was accepted in a large number of film festivals (over 40) from Durban, South Africa, to Shanghai. Position among the Stars won the "Best Full-Length Feature" at IDFA and the highest award at Sundance. And the second New York Times review, titled "A Master of Impossible Camera Angles," talked about Helmrich’s "single shot " technique at length, pointing out that it made small things such as the cockroach as significant as moments of high drama.[34] Finally, Position Among the Stars is now available on HBO and at the HBO online website. "Home movies" have found a position among the stars. It is significant because these "home movies" depict with extraordinary artistry the way that intimate lives enact and reflect contradictions that haunt us all.

All of these films document a transnational commonality of human rights. These films do this in very different ways that celebrate the past, present and future of documentary and suggest ways of illuminating and documenting our dissatisfaction with state and corporate violations of civil and human rights, our love of art, creativity and communication, our need for harmony with the natural world of which we are a part, and our position—if you will—-among the stars.

In this way they share a utopian vision of a cinematic avant-garde that unites social revolutions with art, here with innovations in filmmaking. Thus these three films represent a new version of an avant-garde practice in cinema that unites social commitment with aesthetic experiment. Emma Goldman would approve of that union. Bacha's successful integration of participant recordings into her film, Budrus; Ahadi's use of social media and animation to bring to life the reality of the Iranian Green Wave protests and the horror of the aftermath; and Retel-Helmrich's invention of "single-shot" direct-cinema techniqu

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