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A 3-Generation Ascend Up the Social Ladder

Position Among the Stars (2011)


This Dutch-financed documentary about an Indonesian family in a favela in Jakarta spans approximately two years and is apparently the final film in a trilogy. Director Leonard Retel Helmrich seems to have chosen this family because it is a microcosm for many of the challenges of modern life in Indonesia. But the movie also brings up many more first-world questions.

The Sjamsuddin family consists of Rumidjah; her son, Bakti; his wife, Sri, and their niece, Tari, whom Bakti has brought up since her parents died when she was five. The documentary crew was on hand when Tari was handed over as a child, sobbing hysterically, to live with her uncle in the favela in Indonesia. But they didn’t start working closely with the family (or, in reality-TV parlance, scripting this storyline) until Bakti returned to Rumidjah’s village to ask her to join them in Jakarta to help them with Tari as she finishes high school.

Bakti Sjamsuddin is a neighborhood warden — a sort of community support worker — which gives him a slightly higher local profile. His wife is shyer and a smaller presence in the film, although in one memorable scene — when government workers fumigated against dengue fever — Mr. Sjamsuddin went out to watch using one of her bras as a gas mask. He keeps fighting fish which he prizes above most other things, and an argument between him and his wife about these fish is painful to watch. The city around these people feels like an uncontrollable jungle. The rats in the streets are the size of cats; and cockroaches are everywhere, including the food.

But it’s Tari, a sulky teenage girl, who is the center of attention. She’s a star student at her high school, but also a stereotypical teenager embarrassed by her grandmother, demanding the latest mobile phone, forever updating her Facebook page and going to the biggest malls in Jakarta to shop with her friends. The family has invested all its hopes in her and getting her to university. Of course, life is rarely that simple. For one thing, they are not very religious but nominally Christian, and the organization in charge of handing out scholarship money is Muslim.

This is where the movie brings up interesting ethical questions: Anthropologists are not meant to intervene in the lives of the people they are studying, a truism that was not really questioned until Nancy Scheper-Hughes saved the life of a baby boy dying from untreated diarrhea in a favela in Brazil in the 1980s. But documentary filmmakers are not anthropologists, nor are they journalists. Most are also aware that the act of being observed changes behaviors. In which case, what responsibilities to the observers have to the observed? Surely Mr. Helmrich and his crew could have chipped in to the family’s finances? Or did they, and failed to reveal this?

The film contains some astonishingly beautiful shots, such as one which initially seems to be stars in the night sky but turns out to be drops of insecticide on blades of grass. But a willingness to further blur the lines between fact and fiction is clear in a sequence when a little boy is filmed running through the neighborhood with two stolen shirts on hangers flapping behind him. Except the cameras were ahead of him, or above him, meaning that it’s impossible this was spontaneously caught. So how much of the movie is real? Where else has Mr. Helmrich stacked the deck? How are we meant to trust the information he presents? It’s been some time since a documentary has been presented without any commentary from the creators; there are no explanatory subtitles. By leaving us in the dark about what happened behind the scenes, Mr. Helmrich seems to be both having his cake and eating it.


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