Shape of the Moon

06/27/2010

Indonesia & The Netherlands / 2005 / Indonesian & Javanese

Directed by Leonard Retel Helmrich

Still from 'Shape of the Moon'The second in a trilogy of films chronicling the lives of the Sjamsuddin family, Christians living in Jakarta, Shape of the Moon comprises a dizzying but astoundingly coherent assemblage of fleeting impressions and indelible images that range from the intensely emotional to the relaxed and comic. In documentaries showing the daily experiences of people, the filmmaker is oftentimes compelled to tease out what may be called a story, or at least the continuity of a theme, by condensing things that occur, since events take place whether or not the camera is rolling. Through the artifice of editing this summary forms a consistent sequence. And while the films of Dutch-Indonesian director Helmrich have a rather episodic, fragmented character, their component scenes are at the same time carefully and convincingly interconnected. He acheives this exacting narrative flow abbetted by flourishes usually reserved for fiction filmmaking; his nimble, presumably featherweight cameras traverse narrow spaces, follow insects, and tilt 360 degrees over people’s heads.

We find the Sjamsuddins in a period marked by important transitions. The main subject of film, an old woman named Rumidja, is getting ready to leave the chaotic city and go back to the village of her birth. Her son Bakti, who seemed rather aimless when struggling with unemployment in the previous film, Eye of the Day (2001), has not really improved, although he always shows admirable devotion to her and the rest of his family. Political stress and economic woes encircle them and occasionally filter into the family’s home. The puritanically intellectual and fundamentalist strains of Islam that have existed for a long time in Indonesia, but were largely suppressed under Suharto, have been gaining more popularity in the last decade. A friendly but humorless imam advises Bakti that, being a Christian, there is no way that he can avoid damnation.

The family undergo the inherent constraints of adhering to a minority religion, and Jakarta feels like a village masquerading as a metropolis, minus the insularity but with the same pressure to conform. The title of the film refers to the prominence of Islam in the lives of the characters, indeed in the lives of most Indonesians, and the dissonance that they experience as a result of being at odds with the majority. Religion is always front and center, especially in its political capacity; we see it in mass protests, the prayers of laborers about to lift an entire bamboo hut, even Rumidja’s blessings that she bestows on her family. The latter shows the syncretism that runs deep in their lives, as their religion becomes interspersed with the dominant Islam and the myriad cultural norms that surround them. Bakti, who eschews the overly Muslim-seeming blessing, later goes on to convert in order marry his girlfriend, who comes from a Muslim family. At this point none of Rumidja’s surviving children are stillChristian, and she is left to raise her granddaughter Tari in her own relgion.

Still from 'Shape of the Moon'Bakti’s conversion is all the more interesting for how little overall impact it has on the family. It feels almost routine. While they live in a country where devotion of one kind or another is the norm (how many Indonesians would describe themselves as atheist?), the shape of the moon appears quite malleable, its tenets flexible. Bakti sits in the living room with Tari as she reads a religious comic book depicting the tortures suffered in hell by those who have gambled. We then follow him to a cock fight, a ram fight, and even an ant fight. Even after converting to Islam he has not, as Rumidja acerbically points out, given up drink. There is the impression that when it comes to religion, there are massive gray areas, particularly in diverse and pluralist societies, not least in the context of a middle class urban family. This is not to say that the boundaries and limitations of it are writ large in the failings and pitfalls of one person’s life, but rather are intimated by the family’s absorbtion of such contradictions and by their own acceptance in the wider community.

Applying a strong sense of symmetry and montage to these scenes of daily life, Helmrich weaves together distant locations, compresses the passage of time, and plumbs images from his subjects’ memories. While it may all seem too stylized and overbearing, the film is nonetheless captivating in its delivery of the contrasts and richness of modern Indonesia. And if it at any time disappoints, it is because the sequences of amazing beauty and almost choreographed calculation may feel incongruous to the straightforward and rather lengthy domestic scenes. While it is all too easy to get bound up in the self-consciously cinematic passages, their combined effect is more an intensifier of the atmosphere of the film, and not a flashy distraction. Consider the full moon that visually tranforms into the translucent skin of a drum. There are also scenes of mesmerizing poise and stillness, often cut through by chance indeterminacy. Like when a group of old women sit, taking an afternoon break to enjoy chewing betel leaf. Suddenly one of them breaks into a children’s song and they are all stirred to laughter, finishing out the song together.

Still from 'Shape of the Moon'A bright gibbous traverses the sky in a slow swerve, and Rumidja wakes up in the morning heat, on a cot in her new country home, to sound of the muezzin. Even before the family’s sojourn to the countryside has been realized, Helmrich intimates their connection to the village, punctuating scenes with the inconspicuous natural elements that play on the periphery – bats awakening in the eaves of a mosque, geckoes fighting near the ceiling, a butterfly alighting – at times almost literally being a fly on the wall. Even as city dwellers the family carries the stillness within them, never quite belonging to, or belonging, their surroundings. Understanding and going to great lengths to express these subtleties, Helmrich’s documentation is uninhibited, poetic, keenly interested in seemingly everything going on around him, be it familial, environmental, or ideological. Surging into a crowd of protesters, following a train as it barrels through the darkness and into sunlight, or watching pigeons as they flutter forth from their coop, one really notices in this film a strong sense for the chaos but also the harmonies of life, life that is composed of sensation and awareness and the desire to persevere, to find out what awaits on the other side of the tunnel.

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