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Documentary trilogy details working family's lot in Indonesia

The success of Welsh director Gareth Huw Evans' Indonesian martial-arts thriller The Raid: Redemption has surprised many, but he's not the first European filmmaker to have found his inspiration in Jakarta. Leonard Retel Helmrich spent the past 12 years chronicling the life of a working-class family in the city, producing a trilogy of acclaimed documentaries that reveals a lot about Indonesian society as people struggle with the changes sweeping across the country after the downfall of Suharto and his corrupt regime.

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 August, 2012, 10:21am

The Eye of the Day/Shape of the Moon/Position Among the Stars

Director: Leonard Retel Helmrich

 

The success of Welsh director Gareth Huw Evans' Indonesian martial-arts thriller The Raid: Redemption has surprised many, but he's not the first European filmmaker to have found his inspiration in Jakarta. Leonard Retel Helmrich spent the past 12 years chronicling the life of a working-class family in the city, producing a trilogy of acclaimed documentaries that reveals a lot about Indonesian society as people struggle with the changes sweeping across the country after the downfall of Suharto and his corrupt regime.

One could dub Helmrich's triptych the "Time Trilogy": the post-Suharto era is seen through the glaring heat of daylight, fears about the impending darkness as heralded by the moon's appearance, and the everything-goes state of things as people strive to live out their desires and shine in the deep of the night. Such poetry is apt in describing the films, which provide a realistic account of everyday life with an eye for swooping scenery (as in scenes of the cityscape) and lyrical details (in the form of animals and objects that speak volumes about the characters).

In The Eye of the Day (2001), the Sjamsuddin family is caught in the reformasi movement which brings down Suharto's authoritarian New Order - a turn of events that provides the clan with both opportunities and uncertainty; in Shape of the Moon (2004), the rise of religious fundamentalism highlights conflicts within the family, in which Christian grandmother Rumijah confronts Islamisation and its effects on her clan.

The latest (and possibly last) entry, Position Among the Stars (2011), begins with Rumijah having gone home to the rural hinterland, a respite after years of living in the physically and spiritually stifling capital. As in the first two films, her son Bakti is still clueless about how to make his way in life: unable to support himself with the meagre salary of a low-ranking apparatchik, he trains fighting fish and gambles his time away, He is ill-prepared to raise his teenage niece, Tari, who is torn between aspiring to go to university and the temptations of the malls and nightclubs.

Unable to cope, Bakti brings Rumijah back to the city, re-forming the familial order which Helmrich has documented so remarkably in the past two films, and the dynamics of urban life again bear down on relationships within the clan. Helmrich's eye for confrontation and symbolism remains vivid in this powerful offering.

Clarence Tsui

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