February 28, 2013
A man quickly—almost carelessly—walks along the side of a railroad trestle, hundreds of feet above the rice paddies below. It’s a striking image, made all the more striking once one notices how the camera, with equal fearlessness, drifts out over the abyss, swings back over the trestle and then lingers just over the man’s head as he quick-steps his way along the tracks.
This trestle episode is only one of several breathtaking moments in Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich’s documentary film The Shape of the Moon, his second film in a trilogy that follows three generations of the Sjamsuddin family in Indonesia.
Never seeming tethered to an actual filmmaker, Retel Helmrich’s cameras float over abysses, drift over streets and nearly knock themselves against the faces of the subjects of this masterful documentary film. In many ways representative of typical fly-on-the-wall documentary cinema, this film surpasses traditional observational cinema in its attention to both breadth and depth.
As fascinated by ants carrying the corpse of a cricket as by a train barreling through a shantytown, the film offers a more immersive experience than any tourist trip to the country. There are moments of unspeakable sadness: a section of the Jakarta slums being engulfed in a fire, a girl separated from her grandmother, an elderly woman who struggles to find harvesting work in the fields.
The first film in the trilogy, Eye of the Day, represents an introduction to the family and, while visually and culturally arresting, is not as successful as its follow-up. The Shape of the Moon fleshes out several films’ worth of troubling dynamics—the intimate interrelationships of a family, the strife between conservative Islam and other religions and the pull between urban and rural life.
Eschewing traditional documentary possibilities for dream sequences and metaphor-minded editing, this film offers far more than simply a look into Indonesian life. For instance, the scene of a usurer reclaiming a couch owned by the family is intercut with the close-up observation of a lizard snatching insects. These metaphorical moments recur throughout the film, pushing the context of the film outwards from just the family itself. In fact, the film seems to understand the Sjamsuddin family, foreign and removed from a Western audience though they are, as participants in a series of struggles that are universal rather than specific in nature.
Retel Helmrich will be visiting the campus on March 2 as part of the F.I.L.M. series to present Position Among the Stars, the final film of his trilogy. Following the Sjamsuddin family a final time, the film watches as the family negotiates the changing cultural and economic landscape of modern Indonesia.
Like the other films in the trilogy, Position Among the Stars has garnered several notable awards, in particular the award for best feature-length documentary at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival. The film will be shown at 2 p.m. in the Bradford Auditorium in Kirner-Johnson.