SUNDANCE REVIEW: Position Among the Stars

An eloquently shot and closely observed doc about a poor family in modern-day Indonesia.

PARK CITY-- (World Documentary Competition) If the Loud family of Santa Barbara, featured in the landmark PBS documentary, "An American Family," had lived instead in a shantytown in Jakarta, Indonesia, the resulting film would look something like a remarkable trilogy of docs made by Dutch filmmaker Leonard Rentel Helmrich, which concludes with "Position Among the Stars."

Helmrich has observed the Shamshuddin family living in a Jakarta slum for a dozen years to make his cinema verite saga. While the tumultuous changes that have rocked Indonesian society swirl around the family, of course, more than anything Rentel Helmrich has intimately captured a family in transition as they adjust to bewildering gaps in education, outlook, religion and even class among three generations jammed into cramped quarters.

In The Eye of the Day (2001), the family got caught up in the revolution that toppled the dictator Shuarto from power. In Shape of the Moon (2004), the latter a winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, the rise of Islamic power buffeted the family.

A thumbnail description of Position might be: Teenage daughter Tari emerges as the family’s star as the tumult of democracy and corruption grip the country. The trouble with this thumbnail is that this doc all too closely mirrors life itself — it’s messy and easily distracted. Her dad’s quarrels with her mom, a near fire as the family converts from cooking with oil to cheaper gas, the father’s precarious position as a “neighborhood manager” all shift the focus away from Tari.

Yet the possibility that she may be the first in her family to experience higher education dominates the story line. The father even drags her poor grandmother back from life in her ancestral village to take charge of the youngster and expose Tari to traditional values in the run-up to her graduation and application to college.

If there is a flaw in the director’s fly-on-the-wall style, it’s that a viewer is never entirely certain how Tari herself feels about the family pinning so much hope on her academic career. She says she wants to go to college, but she seems much keener about nightlife with girlfriends and her mobile phone. In other words, she is a typical Western teenager in a traditional Indonesian family.

Retel Helmrich insists he doesn’t stage scenes, but moments such as a small boy taking off running down narrow streets followed by a cut to the boy running toward the camera seem to contradict this. Other times the filmmaker gets distracted by quarreling cats, an armless beggar or a mass circumcision that feel tangential to family’s tale.

On the other hand, a sequence where the family, about to be visited by a government official to determine their eligibility for welfare, frantically hide all their luxury items is not only priceless but speaks loudly to the conflicting needs of poor people who nevertheless crave Western consumer products.

All of this certainly situates the intimate details of a family’s life in a society experiencing a dangerously widened gap between rich and poor.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, World Documentary Competition
Production companies: Scarabeefilms/HUMAN Broadcasting
Director: Leonard Retel Helmrich
Producer: Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich
Directors of photography: Ismail Fahmi Lubish, Leonard Retel Helmrich
Music: Danang Faturahman, Fahmy Al-Attas
Editor: Jasper Naaijkens
Sales: Films Transit
No rating, 111 minutes