Position Among The Stars is the third film in Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich’s documentary trilogy about contemporary Indonesian society that includes The Eye Of The Day (2001) and The Shape Of The Moon (2004).
In a small rural village, head of the Sjamsudin family Bakti tries to convince his elderly mother Rumidjah to leave her home and move to Jakarta in order to persuade his teenage niece Tari that it’s important that she go to university.
That plan runs into problems as Tari doesn’t know the Five Pillars Of Islam, knowledge of which is compulsory if she’s to receive state funding and the fees are well beyond what the family can afford. She’s also started to become distracted by boys in the neighbourhood and begins to neglect her studies in order to hang out with her friends. Elsewhere, Bakti’s wife Sri is getting fed up with her husband’s irresponsible gambling and threatens to get revenge on his prized collection of fighting fish.
The dynamic between the family members is constantly engaging and full of a great deal of humour. They’re a colourful, if roguish bunch that also includes opportunistic scoundrel Dwi who hides his family’s luxury goods to fool a welfare inspector and his impish son Bagus who delights in stealing washing before vanishing down Jakarta’s labyrinthine alleyways.
Helmrich manages to capture some astonishingly intimate moments – from blazing rows and financial despair to heartfelt reconciliations and teenage tantrums, all of which will evoke a wry smile of everyday recognition from western audiences. The family are poor but importantly, this is never exploited or manipulated for emotional effect. They’re seen dealing with their various everyday struggles without being framed as victims and we’re allowed to get so close to them that it’s impossible not to become emotionally invested in their lives.
Helmrich also makes some political points – how the non-separation of state and religion has an impact on education; the effect of religious divisions on children; the role of encroaching Westernisation on the expectations and desires of teenagers and the government’s introduction of dangerous gas-powered stoves in response to rising oil prices.
Aside from the everyday fly-on-the-wall shots of the family, Position Among The Stars showcases beauty in unexpected places – a shot of a motorcycle-powered railway cart silhouetted against the skyline; a superb sequence that tracks the path of a cockroach as it roams the backstreets of Jakarta; the dewdrops on the morning rice fields and a gorgeous closing shot of the night sky so densely sprinkled with stars the effect is breathtaking.
It’s a superb documentary which sheds light on modern Indonesian life through captivating characters and beautiful cinematography, enough to make you want to seek out the previous two instalments of the trilogy.