An extraordinary spectacle of humanity set against evolving nature, accelerating modernisation and increasing globalisation.
At the beginning of Leonard Retel Helmrich's Position Among the Stars, the text of the title is set against a background of stars twinkling in the darkness. Or at least they seem to be stars – for as the screen is gradually suffused with light and colour, these constellations resolve into glistening beads of dew in a rice paddy.
Next come close-ups of a spider working its web. And then a dragonfly. And then wide shots of human workers erecting their own tensile network in the form of an electricity pylon (heralding the arrival of modernism in this rural backwater). Elderly Rumidjah sings a children's country song about a "little dew star" with her equally wizened friend, Tumisah (the latter struggling to remember the words).
And so, this opening free association of ideas and images seems to fold in on itself, as Helmrich keeps shifting scale from the micro to the macrocosmic, simultaneously establishing an individual's place in local, global and universal contexts.
This documentary – in fact the third in a trilogy on Rumidjah's clan, along with The Eye of the Day and Shape of the Moon – traces the grandmother as she reluctantly returns to Indonesia's capital Jakarta with her adult son Bakti, to help guide (and fund) his teenaged niece Tari to become the first in the family's history to complete her education.
To get to the city, mother and son must first get to the nearest train station by catching a ride on an enterprising local's railcar, with the grandmother sitting atop the reversed motorbike that powers it. "To move forwards, we must drive backwards," the local comments, to which Bakti responds: "That sounds like politics."
Indeed, what follows will be a series of evocative conflicts which, though shown on a particularised domestic scale, seem to capture something essential about the world that we all share and the ambiguous progress that sweeps us all along.
Bakti and his wife Sri eke out a living in their slum tenement – she running a food stall out front, he breeding fighting fish and serving as neighbourhood manager. As they scrimp and squabble over money, there are also clashes between Rumidjah's Christianity and her family's Islam, even as we see religion competing with the State in providing the poor with what they need.
Meanwhile, the pampered Tari hits the mall, coveting its more Western, secular model of rapacious aspirations and entitlement, and dreams of being a very different kind of 'star' from the stellar trajectory of education and industry that Rumidjah has in mind for her. As Tari refuses to set foot in a traditional horse and carriage to celebrate her graduation, materialism and modernisation itself are paid for in mounting debts.
Finally Rumidjah, concluding that she has spawned a family of irredeemable 'losers', returns to her country home, where Tumisah rejects her gift of a gas cooker, preferring to continue her simple life of hardship. "Possessions take possession of you," she says. "As long as I have my daily bowl of rice, I'm happy." And so these two friends from a moribund generation are last seen once again singing a childhood song together under the bright night sky (and the now-finished electricity pylon) – a song about finding one's "position among the stars."
In documenting this, Helmrich's camera sometimes keeps in close intimacy with the family and sometimes drifts off to explore their broader environment, matching its desultory mobility to the director's restless curiosity. Here insects, cats, oversized rats and dolled-up monkeys serve as a reflective chorus on all the human drama, and in this swirling, kaleidoscopic vision, seemingly everything connects, even if we are aware that some of these real-life scenarios must be less spontaneous than they first appear.
One scene, for example, tracks Rumidjah's grandson Bagul from a multiplicity of angles as he suddenly takes off and darts through a labyrinth of streets and alleyways. The anticipatory placements of the cameras belying the suggestion that this was anything but a carefully planned and coordinated sequence. Evidently the course of the film's 'stars' is at times being directed by more than just finances, faith and fate – not that such manipulations really undermine Helmrich's broader thesis.
Position Among the Stars is an extraordinary spectacle of humanity set against evolving nature, accelerating modernisation and increasing globalisation. It is Koyaanisqatsi, only with characters, and as he looks out at the wider world and the place of all of us in it, Helmrich certainly has the grand vision, the technical skills and the pessimistic humanism to qualify him as the natural successor to Godfrey Reggio.
Inane astrology or sensational stargazing?
Visually enthralling, dramatically compelling.
A Koyaanisqatsi-like perspective on progress and pessimism, on a domestic, global and cosmic scale.