Reel Estate: An Indonesian trilogy
BY JOSEPH FAHIM
Cairo: One of the great joys of cinema is its ability to take the audience to far-flung places thousands of miles away from one’s home; to virgin lands unspoiled by the harassment of a world media operating in the cursory.
Among the great cinematic expeditions of the new century is Dutch-Indonesian director Leonard Retel Helmrich’s Indonesian trilogy; a series of films chronicling the changes undergone by the largest Muslim nation on the planet after Suharto’s resignation in 1998 from the point of view of a Christian family.
Spanning a dozen years, Helmrich’s tour de force examines the macro by means of the micro, condensing Indonesia’s modern history in a family drama that perfectly captures the invisible impact of the rising regionalism, the sweep of capitalism and the expanding fracture between Muslims and Christians. The similarities between the post-Suharto Indonesia and a post-Mubarak Egypt, as viewers will discover, are uncanny.
The first part of the trilogy, “The Eye of the Day” (2001), opens in 1998 with the mounting student protests that contributed to the end of Suharto’s 30-year rule. The nucleus of the story is Rumidjah, the elderly Christian peasant, and her two jobless grown-up sons, Dwi and Bakti. The increasing turmoil seems to have little impact on their daily lives.
Helmrich doesn’t make a direct connection between Suharto’s failed economic policies and the rampant poverty suffered by Rumidja’s family. The political factor figures on the surface of the story. Dwi and Bakti preoccupied by their daily struggles — and sometimes the futility and absurdity of their endeavors — to fully engage in any political discourse.
Although initially buoyed by the collapse of the ‘New Order,’ Indonesian townsfolk soon become disillusioned with the new establishment. “Don’t tell me we were worse off before,” a friend of Rumidja says. “Nothing has changed.”
Signs of poverty before and after Suharto remain unchanged in the 12 years within which the three films made: Slums are everywhere, beggars populate every corner of the country and piles of garbage stand as a stark testament to the government’s unfulfilled promises. Like Egypt, the first post-Suharto parliamentary elections are marred by allegations of fraud, of of vote-buying with cash or food.
A major theme introduced in the first movie and developed in the sequels is the challenges revolving around the integration of the Christian minority inside the overwhelmingly Muslim society.
In one scene, Bakti, who starts harboring romantic feelings for a Muslim girl, is seen learning how to perform Muslim prayer. In another, he informs his mother that he “always feels like a stranger in family gatherings.” For Bakti, his subsequent conversion to Islam primarily stemmed from a desire to fit in.
This plotline becomes the main focus in “Shape of the Moon” (2004), winner of the 2005 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
Barkti decides to marry his Muslim girlfriend, much to the disappointment of his docile mother. Meanwhile, the emerging antagonism between Christians and Muslim begin to intensify. Trying to convince Bakti to convert in order to marry his Muslim girlfriend, a Muslim preacher tells him; “All Muslims eventually go to heaven. But Jews and Christians never do.”
In one of the most moving scenes of the entire series, Bakti kneels down during his wedding ceremony, kisses his mother’s hand and asks her for forgiveness.
On their way back to Rumidjah’s small village, Dwi stumbles upon a newspaper headline that reads: “Threat of Christians on West Kutai.” In 2000, an outbreak of sectarian violence would strike Maluku and North Maluku resulting in the burning of churches and homes of indigenous Melanesian communities. A total of 9,000 would be killed in the next two years coupled with forced conversions and circumcisions of Christians. The reigning military, as records indicate, never interfered to stop the violence.
In the midst of all these conflicts is Tari, the little granddaughter whom Rumidja raised as a Christian following the death of her parents; an innocent soul born into a fickle world she cannot fathom.
The teenage Tari is the heart of “Position Among the Stars,” Helmrich’s concluding chapter of the trilogy released the end of last year. Bakti is still dabbling with petty jobs, preoccupied with bizarre gambling habits while his marriage has started to fall apart. Signs of poverty prominently illustrated since the first film have not vanished while religious tension has reached a boiling point.
In “Shape of the Moon,” Rumidjah is seen incorporating Islamic rituals in her everyday life, donating to a mosque in one scene and addressing the deity as “Allah Lord Jesus” in another. In a few years, these regular practices become exception to the rule as Muslims grow wary of the Christian influence. Religion has infiltrated various aspects of politics; in one scene, an Islamic preacher tells his cheering followers that “the economy should be controlled by religion. That’s why there’s only one solution: Jihad for Allah.”
The family’s fortunes have been placed on Tari, the first member to complete her education. Last seen retreating in her rural habitat, Rumidja is brought back to Jakarta to see her granddaughter through college.
Tari is an early product of the new materialist Indonesia. Unattached to the family values, Tari is no different from any teenage girl with the big American consumerist dream. She spends her leisure time gazing at designer brands in shopping malls, flipping through fashion magazines, insisting on having a top-of-the-line cell phone and refusing to be escorted to her graduation ceremony in a traditional horse carriage.
One of the key themes in Helmrich’s trilogy is the contrast between the bustling, chaotic urban life and the tranquil, ordered rural one. Malickian images of the vast green meadows and wild creatures stand at odds with the grubby shantytowns and stray cats casually roaming Jakarta, acting as a respite from the city’s madness.
Helmrich maintains a highly distinctive visual style throughout all three films. His camera is always wandering like a stranger, a tourist, always curious about his surroundings. He’s the king of impossible shots. In “The Eye of the Day,” a boy perched on the open doorway of a train is seen via a magnifying shot from outside the train and then from the inside. In “Shape of the Moon,” Bakti is shown walking on a railroad trestle high above a valley, the camera capturing him from above, behind and from the side.
In the most spectacular sequence in “Position Among the Stars,” the camera follows Rumidjah’s grandson Bagul as he navigates Jakarta’s alleyways also from multiple angles, including one from the front that drove several critics to presume that the run was staged. Staged or not, the sequence is exhilarating; the camera appears like a bird, roving from side to side and gliding high above this world.
Every component of the film, the visual, political and social, are in service of a deeply humanistic story steeped in the harsh and often humorous quotidian details of ordinary Indonesian life.
Helmrich immerses his viewers into this fascinating and often uninhabitable place, celebrating the flaws of his characters while bringing attention to the forces disrupting their world. Rumidjah’s family doesn’t have big aspirations. Their main objective in life is surviving, to afford proper food and shelter, and Rumidjah finds a magical grace in this struggle.
From the filmmaker
Helmrich spoke to The Egypt Monocle about the story behind his Indonesian trilogy, the politics that changed the face of Indonesia and his unique visual approach.
Helmrich’s journey was spurred by a simple interest in his ancestral homeland. His parents moved to the Netherlands in 1957 after the Indonesian independence. “Indonesia was a big mystery for me,” Helmrich said.
“I never considered myself Indonesian, never went there when I was a kid. I always thought of myself as Dutch. I knew there were some differences in my character and humor from the average Dutch. When I went to Indonesia for the first time, I discovered a whole new world I wasn’t aware of before. I recognized my humor in Indonesian people; I saw my brothers and sisters in Indonesian people. It was a revelation.
In 1990, he recounts, he was given a job as cameraman in Indonesia. It was then when, for the first time, he met with family members who lived in the small village which was to become the setting of his films. “It’s there where I met with Rumidjah’s family and we became friends.”
“Later on, I wanted to make a film about the student demonstrations. When Suharto stepped down, all world media outlets came in and reported the story. I wanted to portray these changes, but I didn’t know from which perspective. Initially, I actually wanted to tell the story from the point of view of activists and students. But then I saw how these changes have started to affect ordinary people, my friends and family, and I realized it was even more relevant.”
Muslims represent 87 percent of the Indonesian population. The decision, therefore, to depict Indonesia from the perspective of a family of Christians — who only account for less than five percent — seems peculiar.
“I actually chose to film this family before realizing they were Christians,” Helmrich said. “It popped up during the shooting and then it became an issue. You have to understand that for them living as a Christian family in a Muslim neighborhood was no problem at all. When Suharto stepped down, things began to change.
“[Suharto’s successor] Abdurrahman Wahid was a Muslim preacher. He was actually open-minded; he didn’t want Indonesia to become a religious country. At the same time, he wanted to disband the military, and he explicitly announced his decision to get rid of the top generals. Then suddenly, riots between Christians and Muslims exploded and we found out later that the military was behind them; they were the engineers and executors of these operations. They simply wanted to justify their hold on power, to prove they were needed to offset this made-up crisis and maintain security.”
The damage this violence created was grave, says Helmrich, and triggered bad sentiments between Christians and Muslims that did not exist before.
“Lots of Christians were killed by Muslims, and all that happened before 9/11. The fact of the matter is, you won’t find a good, tangible reason behind this violence if you trace it.”
The sectarian clashes represented a turning point in modern Indonesian history; the moment when the country started to adopt a stricter form of Islam in place of the moderate, secular model that ruled for decades.
“After Suharto, Arab sheikhs, mostly from Yemen, preaching a more fundamentalist brand of Islam, started descending on Indonesia. It’s a pity because for a very long time, Islam in Indonesia was very open, very tolerant towards other religions. It’s not all bad though; some of the Islamic groups have taken over the role of the retreating police in protecting their neighborhoods.”
According to Helmrich, the rise of political Islam is changing the makeup of Indonesia. Freedom of expression has been curbed in various areas the country. For example, shadow play, one of the oldest art-forms in Indonesia, has been prohibited in small districts. In order to perform, artists must obtain permission from a government official. The government official, however, must first consult the neighborhood leaders, many of whom object to folk art as they deem it “un-Islamic.”
“Your journey with Rumidja’s family started 12 years ago. Why did you decide to go back and continue telling their story?” I asked him.
“Rumidja’s family is not a standard one,” Helmrich said. “Most families in Indonesia are not built like that. They, in a twisted way, represented Indonesia; its past, present and future. The mother represented the past of Indonesia. She experienced the Dutch and Japanese occupation, Sukarno rule and Suharto rule. Bakti represents the present. He only experienced Suharto and adjusted himself to always be quiet, to not engage in politics. For him, democracy is a challenge and he doesn’t know how to deal with it. And then Tari, who grew up at time of political openness, represents the future.”
Back in the day, religious conversion was treated quite casually. In the past, it wasn’t unusual for a family to have members following different faiths. “My mother for instance was born a Muslim and she later converted to Christianity. She read both the Quran and the Bible and simply found it more practical to become a Christian. Back then, that wasn’t a big deal,” Helmrich said. “Now it has become a big deal. It’s ok for a Christian, a Buddhist or follower of any other religion to convert to Islam. It’s not the same the other way round. It’s even dangerous. You can get murdered for that.”
The most common critique of Helmrich’s films is the artificiality of a number of glossed moments, such as he chase sequence in “Position Among the Stars.”
“That scene started very spontaneously actually,” he said. “I began following him and then he started running. There was an interaction between me and him. He was running away from me. I knew this neighborhood quite well with all its alleyways. I knew where he’d go and that’s how I was able to shoot the sequence the way I did. When I saw the footage, I was taken aback. I felt he was trying to escape something. Then I decided to play a bit with him; I asked him to follow me and that’s how I was able to get in front of him. In that sense, it was and it wasn’t [staged].
“For me, staging only materializes when the captured reality turns into artificial drama where subjects act, when you ask your characters to behave or look or act in a certain way. I never do that. I must confess that in my first film, I did try to stage some scenes, but I ended up not using this footage because you can feel that it is staged one way or the other.”
In order to attain a more fluid camera movement, Helmrich devised the SteadyWing, a camera mount that looks like handlebars. His invention is part of a film technique he calls Single-Shot Cinema.
“Single-Shot Cinema is a way of filming that enables you to shoot a scene using just one camera in one single shot from all angles that are required to cover a scene from all emotional perspectives like fiction films,” he said. “You can only do that in one shot because the moment you start segregating a given scene, you miss the interrelations between that different elements composing that scene. “
In spite of the passage of time and being filmed over many years, neither Rumidja nor Bakti became self-conscious. Tari, however, became more aware of being filmed and started behaving accordingly. “There were some scenes, especially those when she was with her girlfriends, that didn’t feel natural. She was reacting and behaving in a certain way in front of them,” Helmrich said.
“After 12 years of following this family, have you considered going go back again to Jakarta to continue their story? Could this become your ‘Up’ series?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” Helmrich replied, “and mainly because of Tari’s growing self-consciousness. She understands the Western point of view more now. She actually wants me to go on, and that persuaded me even more to finish the series there. The same will happen to the little boy for sure.”
As for the future of Indonesia, Helmrich is uncertain. “The question now is whether the Sharia law will be implemented on all of Indonesia or not,” he said.
“It’s already started with the Aceh province [in the Northern part of the island of Sumatra] in 2001. It could happen. The governor of Aceh told me that he didn’t want Sharia to be implemented but that it was forced upon him by the government. So yes, it looks bad.” –The Egypt Monocle