A Conversation With Leonard Retel Helmrich, Hettie Naaijkens Retel-Helmrich, and Jasper Naaijkens (POSITION AMONG THE STARS)
“Milk and four sugars,” Leonard Retel Helmrich replies, when asked how he likes his coffee. We’re on an outdoor patio, on a typically overcast June day in L.A., with Dutch-Indonesian director Helmrich, his sister and producer Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich, and editor Jasper Naaijkens (Hetty’s son), the core team behind the dazzling new documentary Position Among The Stars—read Pamela Cohn’s Hammer to Nail review—which chronicles a year in the life of the Shamuddins, an Indonesian family living in a poor, crowded neighborhood in Jakarta. It’s the third installment of a trilogy on the Shamsuddins, which includes The Eye of the Day (2001) and Shape of the Moon (2004). The Los Angeles Film Festival is one of the many stops on its festival run.
Position Among The Stars is shot in Helmrich’s trademark “Single Shot Cinema” style, an approach to documentary filmmaking involving inexpensive, often handmade technologies that allow the camera to swoop and spin around its subjects, fly off to capture dramatic POVs, and dive in for extreme close-ups, all on-the-fly. The camera movement is paired with specific principles of editing to create a unique, highly kinetic visual experience.
Leonard and Hettie are a matched pair, the same height, shape, and coloring. They, and Jasper, are rightly enthusiastic about what they’ve accomplished, albeit in a somewhat elegant and reserved European way—Leonard speaks to me in three-quarter profile, with his head slightly cocked. He’s a natural artist, even with words, effortlessly coming up with evocative images and turns of phrase. He’s eager to talk about the film itself, about Indonesia in general, and the challenges of making the film, but he doesn’t open up my very American attempts to connect the film to his personal drives, emotions, or psychology. Not that he seems reticent; it’s as if the very concept doesn’t figure in his consciousness.
Leonard and Hettie’s family was deported from Indonesia in 1950—along with some 300,000 people with “too much Dutch blood”—in the aftermath of the country’s independence from Holland.
Leonard is about to take some time off from filmmaking, to teach Single Shot Cinema at NYU in Abu Dhabi. Hettie is about to make a second film in her series of documentaries about deported Dutch Indonesians and their descendants (including Eddie Van Halen!). Jasper is moving on to other editing projects.
Hammer to Nail: How do you reconcile Single Shot Cinema, which seems complex to shoot, with the spontaneity of the action?
Leonard Retel Helmrich: What I developed as a way of shooting, what I call single shot cinema—you capture scenes in one shot, but then you go inside the situation, and you use your camera movements, by intuition, in order to shoot everything from the inside. And now it’s possible, because of this small camera, so it’s a new technology that enables you to do that. In the old days, in the time of Cinema Verité and Direct Cinema, they wanted to do that. Only because of the bulky big cameras you were not able to do that. Now you are, but only when you follow certain rules, and these rules, that I made it into a method of filming, are what I call Single Shot Cinema. And the rules are a bit different than the ordinary way of filming, so you don’t think in shots anymore, but you think in camera movements, so also when you edit you edit from movement into movement, and that makes the whole scene much more fluid.
H2N: And does it involve special equipment?
LRH: It involves almost all the equipment there is nowadays; the small cameras, even mobile phones or something—I don’t use mobile phones, but I use small cameras, the smaller the better—then you can really go into the situation, you can almost use the camera as a microphone, and be very close to somebody, but still have a very good camera angle.
H2N: Do you put the camera on a boom pole?
LRH: No, I’m holding it in a special device, what I call steady wings, a kind of wing device under the camera, that allows you to move very smooth, but very flexible also. To be able to capture things from the inside you have to be not only smooth, not only steady, but also flexible.
H2N: Sometimes your lens would stray from the main action of the scene but also capture the essence of what was going on; how did you intuitively know how to do that?
LRH: I use a camera movement that hasn’t been introduced into film language yet, while every computer game makes use of it, and that’s the orbit—orbital camera movement, to go from one point of interest into the other, so when you do that you go away from the action, you orbit around the action; you still see the action in the background, but in the foreground something else appears, something that reveals much more about the whole drama of the scene than the action itself. Things like that are all part of the vocabulary of Single Shot Cinema.
H2N: You’ve spent 12 years on this project—was there something in your own psyche that drew you to this story?
LRH: Well Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world, in terms of people, and if you would also count the surface of the land it’s also very big, only people say “well they’re all islands so you have to pile them together,” which is crazy, because many seas in between the islands are more densely populated than, for instance, mountain ranges in other countries. There are fishermen—when you fly over the Java sea, for instance, with your plane, and you look down, you see like stars in heaven so many little islands actually: little bamboo islands floating, and sometimes not even floating because it’s a very shallow sea and people are sticking bamboo poles into the sea, so there are so many people living in that area. I think it’s a very important country to know; it’s, for the amount of people who live there, almost as big as the U.S.A.
Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich: They have all different cultures also, they all had their own language, so there were a lot of different languages, before, when it was a Dutch colony. After independence, with Sukarno, it was official in ‘49, he took the language that was spoken in Malaysia, and based on that language, he created a new language for all the islands, for all the people.
H2N: But the specific human story, was there something that drew you to that, specifically?
LRH: The thing is that actually changes in a country are only important if you know how it affects ordinary people, because that’s who has to deal with it. I didn’t focus on the real, poorest people, but the average. Most people in Indonesia are in a living standard like the people in my film.
HNRH: The real poor people live by the railroads, and on the streets.
H2N: Do Indonesians see you as an Indonesian or more as a foreigner?
LRH: I have 50% Javanese blood in my veins…
HNRH: I don’t think they see you as Indonesian; I don’t believe it.
[Here, for the first time, there is a crackle of emotion. The old wound of the Retel Helmrich family’s deportation is present and tangible.]
LRH: Among rich people, I’m regarded as Indonesian; among poor people I’m not. Many of the rich people in Indonesia are descended from the Dutch, still. The old money is a holdover from the old colonial times, so many people are mixed blood like I am, but they kept their Indonesian identity and passport, and my parents had to leave the country because my father had blue eyes.
H2N: What about attitudes toward sex in Indonesia? It seemed in your film that the smallest transgression by Tari caused this great commotion. Do people talk about sex? Is it taboo?
LRH: Sometimes I think it’s less taboo than here in the U.S.
HNRH: No, they talk about it—it’s forbidden, kissing on the street is forbidden, walking hand in hand for a girl and a boy—it’s not really forbidden, but people look at you, while if two boys are embracing each other like that it’s no problem.
Jasper Naaijkens: I think it’s the influence of Islam.
HNRH: We put one extra scene in the Dutch DVD that’s about Tari, who had a boyfriend, and the grandmother found a picture of her and the boyfriend. It was a struggle and at last he…
LRH: …Bakti, the uncle, told her if—because Tari said it’s over now—he said if this relation is over then you have to tear the photo apart. You can see it on YouTube as a deleted scene.
LRH: There is this fundamentalism coming up; from the inside, from underneath, there are these missionaries from Arab places like Yemen, who are preaching this fundamentalistic Islam, while Islam in Indonesia was always very open and almost like Sufi—you could say a Buddhistic interpretation of Islam. I like that actually, but now it’s vanishing. For example in the countryside there are many places where the old Javanese dances, which are related the Balinese dances everyone knows, very beautiful dances, but many places you’re forbidden to perform that because…
HNRH: It’s too naked, the movements are too sensual. too erotic—they think it’s erotic. It’s a tradition, for hundreds of years. It’s a pity. Also the shadow puppets—sometimes they’re forbidden because it’s not Islam, it’s Hindu.
H2N: A lot of filmmakers—I’ve noticed it a lot in the films here at the L.A. Film Festival—are expanding the idea of documentary, using elements of fantasy, and creating scenes in the editing; what is your feeling about that?
LRH: Well as long as it represents some inner feeling of the characters in your film, it’s OK. The thing is, I define two different kinds of scenes: the verité scenes, where I’m going into the situation and shooting from the inside, and scenes that are symbolic, what symbolize certain aspects of their life. Like for instance I have the cockroaches, and you have the animals in the film, but also like the dewdrop that you see—you see the man spraying insecticides reflected in the dewdrop; that’s also a symbolic scene. But also the little boy who had to take these clothes and bring them to grandmother’s house, but then he ran away from me, and I followed him, and I knew where he would end up, so I managed to be in front of him, and so I managed to get a number of nice shots; and then I saw it, and I thought OK, this is nice; I have to make it… expand it, and make it into a symbolic scene. And then I could make it into more what you would do in a fiction film. I ask him then that he follow me and then I follow him—it’s just a game for him; that’s what we were doing. And at the very end I wanted to have one shot that actually expresses what he wanted to do, because he was actually playing Batman—he wanted to fly, in these little alleys, as if he wanted to escape it, so I made a crane shot of the little boy running away and the crane going into the air. So that’s sort of a fade, over what started out like a verité and then into the symbolic scene. So I think that’s OK, as long as… there, in symbolic scenes, you let the camera do the storytelling; you let the camera be the dramatic element, and then it’s OK. But the moment you ask people to do something for film, that’s not done—that’s what I don’t do.
H2N: Did you use a jib?
HNRH: He made it by bamboo. He made it himself because we didn’t have a big budget, so not with cranes.
LRH: I just had—just a bamboo stick, and they have bamboo sticks everywhere, so it’s easy, and just with ropes, a little camera on top of it, and with ropes, I pulled the bamboo stick up, and then like a puppeteer, as a vertical marionette, I could control the camera.
H2N: How did you capture the whole sweep of the story—how did you know when to be there since you obviously couldn’t be there every day?
LRH: I spent 14 months, almost from 9 to 5, I was there, really 14 months shooting and waiting until something would happen.
HNRH: We hired for the production a small studio, and it was right next to the house.
H2N: That’s a huge commitment—what’s it like to be at work all the time for 14 months?
LRH: Well, sometimes I hear people filming how an egg opens in an eagle’s nest, and they manage to film that also, in films for like National Geographic, and they do that just for one shot, so here I did it for a whole film, I stayed in one spot, being close to my subjects, and shooting them; actually partly living their lives because you are really among them all the time.
H2N: How did your relationship with them evolve? Was there any real conflict with them or difficulties?
LRH: Well they had difficulties with each other, and many scenes happened where they also had a kind of fight, but it did not relate in any sense to the real main subjects of my film. The things I wanted to follow—I only shot scenes if it had to do with economy, religion, or politics. If something did not have to do with that, then I could be involved. For instance the grandmother, sometimes she had to go to the hospital, so since her health issue is not a part of the film, I could help her with that. In that sense you can be part of them.
JN: They see you as an uncle.
LRH: In Indonesia there’s a tradition that when you are close there, you become actually a part—they call you uncle, but actually I’m not really… Like Tari, she knew me as a strange uncle from somewhere filming them constantly, but if you see the whole trilogy you see her growing up, from being five years old…
HNRH: …And in Shape of the Moon she was between 12 and 14, and now in this film she’s from 17 up to… now actually she’s 20.
H2N: And did she go to college?
LRH: Yes, she went to college, and I even filmed some scenes also inside the college, but since there was nothing substantial helping the story line I could not use the footage.
H2N: What about those crazy mansions—the brand new luxury mansions with Ionic columns that Tari drives past in the film?
HNRH: It’s the nouveaux riches—it’s because of globalization.
JN: There’s not an economic crisis ; the economy is growing by 6% [a year] in Indonesia, because of all the factories that are based now in Indonesia, because of the cheap labor, and the owners are getting so rich that they’re building palaces and coliseums; they don’t know what to do with their money.
HNRH: Now it’s, kind of, very popular for them to adopt white children. Mostly from Eastern Europe. You see them in the malls, white children, always with nannies.
H2N: Are there a lot of people living off the grid in Indonesia?
LRH: In the countryside— you can live outside the… “money system” you could say. It’s poor, it’s very basic. Of course you already have a double economy—the ordinary economy and the informal sector, which many people, like the family I followed—they for a great part live in this informal sector, who don’t pay tax, and it circulates this whole barter thing—they use money actually to barter. And then there’s the other one—Tumisah lives outside of that even. And she’s so free, it’s fantastic actually.
LRH: You need more than only food of course, sometimes you have to go to the doctor, now you have to pay for that, but in Indonesia you have special people they call dukun—they can cure people. I had one scene that we didn’t use finally because… it was also actually beautiful because she wanted to go to the doctor, but the only person who knew where the doctor lived was a blind person. And then the blind person, he had to lead and we followed with him and he led her the way to the doctor.
HNRH: She’s very free, she doesn’t have any possessions, so why should she? She has the stars.
JN: That’s why we end with the last scene because, actually, the whole film was about who is the richest. Actually, that’s what we thought in the end: she is the richest woman in Indonesia, because she’s independent, she has nothing, she only has her bowl of rice, and she’s happy with that. I went to her village and if you see it it’s beautiful—there’s a volcano, rice fields, everything is green. She can pick fruit from the trees, children are swimming in the river…