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As One Indonesian Family Goes, So Goes the Nation in Position Among the Stars

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Position Among the Stars
Directed by Leonard Retel Helmrich
HBO Films
September 15 through 21, MOMA

Leonard Retel Helmrich's third documentary about the same Indonesian family is a dazzler in at least a couple ways. First off, it's the rare final chapter in a decade-plus-long saga—a trilogy that also includes 2001's The Eye of the Day and 2004's Shape of the Moon—that you can slide right into without any prior knowledge. There's a brief "previously in post-Suharto Indonesia" montage at the beginning that draws from the earlier films; its practical efficiency at communicating the emotional background (if not all the political stuff) also introduces, surprisingly, Helmrich's affection for thriller pacing. The other way the film amazes is by taking rote family life—mopey kids, a wife who begrudges her husband's adolescent fascinations—and sculpting individual scenes that feel poetically distinct from other family narratives we've seen before. It helps that members of the Sjamsuddin clan are so comfortable around the crew that Helmrich can whirl his cameras expressionistically around the room during high-drama moments without interrupting a story beat. And the introduction of a modest modern convenience (a gas stove) that nearly incinerates the family's entire holdings is one of the most fearsome pyrotechnic effects you'll see all year. There's a developing-world drama roiling underneath—complete with a you-are-there look at political Islam flexing its populist muscles—though the film also speaks in universal ways. When teenage daughter Tari sings along to pop songs in which "only stars" are deemed worthy of love, the omnipresence of class-based culture aspiration in our world starts to feel both familiar and inescapable.

 
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