Yesterday, I attended the screening of a trilogy of films by Indo-Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich at Open City, a festival of documentary film currently on at UCL.
The trilogy follows the fortune of an extended family living in a small house in a Jakarta slum, roughly over the years 1998 to 2010 - a micro-history of change in politics, economics and religion.
These three films Eye of the Day (2001), Shape of the Moon (2004) and Position among the Stars (2010) are remarkable in the intimacy with their subjects. The grandmother Rumidjah, who owns the house, is a practicing Christian, long widowed, who comes originally from a small village in Central Java where Helmrich's own mother was born.
In the first film, set against the demonstrations that led to Soeharto's downfall and the first post-reformasi election, her son Bakti, who still lives with her mother, is a bit of a lay-about, addicted to gambling without career aspirations. We see in the trilogy Bakti drifting away from Christianity and converting to Islam and marrying a Muslim woman (who starts up a small warung in front of the house). Bakti takes to raising fighting fish (which are fried by his wife after a quarrel), and also is elected RT.
Also living in the house is Tari, Sudjinah's grand-daughter who was orphaned at age 6. Over the years, we see Tari transform from an imaginative and spunky kid to a somewhat jaded and diffident adolescent. In the third film, Sudjinah is forced to take out a mortgage against her house in order to pay for Tari's tertiary education in Komunikasi (Media and Communication Studies).
We also see Sudjinah herself in the second film make a go at returning to her natal village Kalimiru (in Purworejo, Jawa Tengah), renovating a house and trying to find day labour in rice fields. She returns to Jakarta in the third film though to help with Tari, who has been having trouble with her high school studies.
Helmrich in all this is both a documentarian and an instigator of scenes, observer and participant. Though never seen on camera, he is on intimate terms with the family. Camera work is extraordinary - never before has daily life in under-class Indonesia seen such exposure.
I first encountered Helmrich from his remarkable documentary about Dutch experimental puppetry, Moving Objects (1991) - which I saw at the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre, and reviewed his documentary about Indonesian puppeteer Agus Nur Amal, Promised Paradise (2006), for Asian Theatre Journal.
I had hoped to meet Helmrich at the opening of the festival last night, at which Position among the Stars was shown. Unfortunately he had to go to California, where his film is being promoted by HBO for an academy award nomination.