“Shape of the Moon” is a documentary of such stunning visual grace that while watching it at Sundance, I occasionally wondered if I was mistaken about its category and the film was actually an entry in the dramatic world cinema competition that had very naturalistic actors.
It examines an old Christian woman, her son, and her very young orphaned granddaughter who live in a poor area of Jakarta, Indonesia. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country, and the family members find themselves struggling with their identity, especially the son, who isn’t impressed with any religions and has a Muslim girlfriend. While their lives are interesting, their story isn’t as gripping as the visuals are fantastic.
Director Leonard Retel Helmrich finds the telling details in a person’s hand movement and looks for unique visual ways to tell his story. He uses 35-mm film when necessary, although often uses various digital cameras, compromising quality for intimacy. There are poetic transitions, one going from a train tunnel to a point-of-view shot of a bucket coming out of a well. He even creates a dream sequence with images from a devastating fire to communicate what might be going through a subject’s mind.
Other shots, like an overhead one of the shadows cast from a house structure being rotated to fit its new foundation, are simply lovely to look at. The most beautiful—and dizzying—moment follows a man as he crosses a train bridge on its side platform. There are no hand rails on the narrow plank, yet some of the most amazing camera angles are in the sequence, leaving me with the feeling that someone was about to plummet to their death or that they were using a helicopter around to shoot a documentary.
All these shots didn’t necessarily have a place in the somewhat jumbled depiction of the distinctive family Helmrich found, but they show that the documentary can be elevated to a level of poetry.