out of Five
Running time: 95
Beautifully shot and skilfully edited, this is an emotionally engaging slice-of-life documentary with likeable subjects and a subtle political edge.
What's it all about?
Directed by Leonard Retel Helmrich (a Dutch filmmaker from an Indonesian background), Position Among The Stars (Stand van de Sterren, original title fans) is the third film in a trilogy of documentaries about Indonesian society that includes 2001's The Eye of the Day and 2004's The Shape of the Moon. The film centres on the Sjamsudin family and begins as slacker husband Bakti asks his 71 year old mother Rumidjah to leave her countryside village and return with him to Jakarta in order to help him persuade his 17 year old niece Tari that she needs to attend university.
However, after she's refused state funding for not knowing the Five Pillars of Islam, Tari starts neglecting her studies and hanging out with her friends, eyeing up local boys on scooters. Meanwhile, Bakti's wife Sri gets increasingly tired of Bakti's gambling lifestyle and threatens to do something terrible to his collection of specially bred fighting fish.
The interactions between the various family members (there's also wheeler-dealer uncle Dwi and his son, tiny mischievous Bagus) are so engaging and quick-witted (there's a lot of humour in the film) that you could be forgiven for thinking that this was, if not a mockumentary, then at least an Indonesian version of the “docu-tainment” that's the current vogue in reality TV. As such, certain scenes have obviously been at least partially staged (either that or various cameras just happen to catch Bagus as he speeds through some alleyways after stealing some clothes), though that doesn't detract from the film's overall substance.
Helmrich's fly-on-the-wall approach captures some powerfully intimate and achingly emotional moments, from erupting arguments to teary apologies and teenage tantrums; indeed, the family conflicts on display here have an everyday familiarity that is all too apparent, even if the setting is far removed from Western comforts. The film also manages to make some subtle political points, such as the effect of religious divisions or the government insistence on poverty-stricken families converting to dangerous gas-cookers in the face of rising oil prices.
The film is also beautifully shot, with a strong eye for the natural world: Helmrich's cameras are just as comfortable tracking a cockroach around the apartment, following an enormous rat or observing a potential catfight as they are in documenting the everyday activities of the Sjamsudin family. This culminates in the stunning closing shot of the nighttime sky that simultaneously explains the film's title and makes a point about modern day society obscuring the natural beauty of the universe.
Position Among the Stars is a warm-hearted, beautifully made and powerfully moving documentary that demands to be seen. Highly recommended.
Position Among The Stars (12A)