This is an exhilarating cinematic ride, a funny, pungent, piercing slice of neo-realist poetry that feels closer to Slumdog Millionaire than BBC4.
A Dutchman with an Indonesian mother, Leonard Retel Helmrich is a unique creative force, a virtuoso with a movie camera who would surely be as well known as Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, except that for the past 12 years he has devoted his filmmaking efforts to telling the story of one impoverished Indonesian family, the Shamshuddins.
Not that Bakti and co will seem remote or alien to anyone who has a teenage daughter more interested in hanging out at the mall than going on to college, or any housewife juggling domestic duties with a heavy workload - while her husband pins his hopes on gambling. Admittedly, the gambling in question involves breeding fighting goldfish, a local alternative to cockfighting which was a new one on me. In our globalized world the generational struggle to make ends meet, to reconcile tradition, spiritual values and social aspiration, plays out in ways that may seem both strange and oddly familiar.
Most, or at least many documentarians essentially use a point and shoot method by necessity, finding the form and rhythm of their movie in the editing room. Helmrich has a different approach, though it still involves long takes. He calls it “Single Shot Cinema”. The difference is that his shots are highly choreographed, using the kind of ostentatious camera moves you might expect to see in a Brian De Palma thriller (he designed the camera himself).
This is a bit off-putting at first, especially in a documentary. In fact I would hesitate to use that term, because if it is a doc, it’s surely one of the most staged docs I’ve ever seen.
Helmrich previously chronicled the lives of this same family in the award-winning The Eye of the Day and Shape of the Moon, and it seems obvious (at least to me) that he made this film collaboratively with them: whole sequences seem to me to be shaped for dramatic purpose, and were clearly covered from different angles in different takes, just like in a fiction film. None of which has stopped Position Among the Stars from finding immense acclaim in the documentary world: it won the top prize at the world’s biggest documentary film festival last year (IDFA), the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and it was nominated for best documentary at the European Film Awards in December. So maybe my suspicions are misplaced. In any case I don’t think the staging undercuts the truth of the scenes any more than it does such neo-realist classics as Bicycle Thieves or the Apu Trilogy, or any other great movie.
Poetic, often hilarious and finally very touching, Position is a rule-breaker, a vibrant, iconoclastic response to the massive social and economic contradictions presented by life in the 21st Century.