This review was originally published on February 7, 2011…

Position Among the Stars is the third film in Leonard Rentel Helmrich’s trilogy of documentaries about a family that splits their time between rural and urban Indonesia. The first two films Eye of the Day and The Shape of the Moon are absolutely amazing, incredible, and breathtaking. And Position Among the Stars is no different. This time Helmrich is following the family as they deal with the direct effects globalization has on their lives. Granddaughter Tari is graduating high school – cruising Facebook and begging for a cell phone – while her grandmother, Rumidjah (arguably the main character of the film), is just getting used to cooking on a gas stove.

Shot over 12 years, Helmrich captures intimate family on film in fly-on-the-wall cinema verite style. One can only assume that the family has become so used to the camera’s presence that they are able to live as though it isn’t there, because the film achieves a level of sincerity and honesty you don’t often see in documentaries. Helmrich claims that he never stages these incredibly filmed scenes. Perhaps there are situations that the family reenacts so Helmrich (also serving as the director of photography) can capture incredibly beautiful and painterly shots, but I assume that those scenes and few and far between because such natural performances wouldn’t be possibly from even the most seasoned actors. Instead, Helmrich seems to simultaneously find the beauty in the small and traditionally repulsive while detailing large-scale family drama. Tattered, diseased rats are filmed with the same love that Helmrich channels to film Tari’s graduation ceremony. One particularly beautiful scene follows the cockroach fumigators who spray hazardous chemicals into homes without any warning.

In addition to the impressive cinematography, Position crafts a story that poignantly explores the tension between old world and new. Tari and Rumidjah obviously love each other very much, but their conflicting values continually clash. Tari’s material desires seem inevitably disastrous, while her grandmother’s hopes for her feel hopelessly naïve. Watching these two interact is as frustrating as watching an Oscar winning drama, and the scenes Helmrich captures are as well crafted. In short, Position Among the Stars is absolutely stunning from beginning to end. A perfect film.

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