Visual Anthropology Review

Single-Shot Cinema and Ethnographic Sympathy in Contemporary Indonesia: A Review Essay on The Eye of the Day (2001), The Shape of the Moon (2004), and Position Among the Stars (2011) by Leonard Retel Helmrich



Over the course of a turbulent decade in Indonesia's history—including the Asian Financial Crisis, the fall of Suharto's authoritarian New Order regime (1965–1998), and the subsequent period of reform and democratization—documentary filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich directed an impressive, at times moving, trilogy that chronicles an intimate story of a family who struggles to navigate through the hope and despair of poverty and political upheaval. The Eye of the Day (2001) introduces the matriarch Rumidja Sjamsudin, a devoutly Christian woman who lives in Jakarta's slums with her troubled 20-something son Bakti and her young, orphaned granddaughter Tari. When we first meet the family in 1998, Rumidja's older son Dwi has already converted to Islam and lives nearby with his Muslim wife. In The Shape of the Moon (2004), Rumidja returns to her village in central Java, Bakti continues his self-destructive pattern of drinking and gambling, and political and religious leaders vie for power in a newly democratic Indonesia. In the final film, Position Among the Stars (2011), the family projects its anxieties and fears onto Tari, who, they hope and pray, might someday offer redemption for the family's misfortunes.

As each family member develops personally, albeit in fits of starts and stops, the filmmaker cultivates his style of observational cinema, what he refers to as “single shot cinema.” Inspired by André Bazin and Italian neorealism, Helmrich claims that “single shot cinema is a technique that enables you to shoot an event from the inside. You can do this by making use of camera movements to express your personal feeling about the event you are filming.” Helmrich has subsequently taught single-shot cinema in production workshops across the globe, and his films have received international acclaim, most notably winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival (2005) and the Robert and Frances Flaherty Prize at the Yamagata International Film Festival (2011). In both content and method, this trilogy is well suited for introductory courses in Southeast Asian studies, visual anthropology, and documentary film production. With respect to the latter, this trilogy affords the opportunity for students and scholars to debate the merits of single-shot cinema. This technique offers important glimpses into the lived worlds of Indonesians. However, its capacity to “express your personal feeling about the event you are filming” cannot escape the risk of projecting the director's fears and fantasies at the expense of deeper insights into the complex, and at times contradictory, subjectivities of those being filmed.

The Politics of Everyday Life: Studying the State from Below

The beauty of Helmrich's filmmaking is that his story about the perils and possibilities of post-authoritarian Indonesia is told from the bottom up. Helmrich weaves together narratives about the lives of ordinary citizens as they experience and engage the people and policies of the state. In The Eye of the Day, Helmrich films the student protests of May 1998 as they unfolded on the streets and flyovers of Jakarta. With a keen eye, he subtly chronicles the nervous angst of young police officers and soldiers who we imagine—by the nervous tapping of their guns and cracking of their knuckles—would rather lay down their arms and join the protestors. In another scene on a commuter train, we encounter young boys singing protest songs: “People say they want reform. But there's corruption all around. And that corruption is the reason my child's going hungry. … Suharto wants your money. And Harmoko (former Minister of Information) just talks rubbish. Habibie (then Vice President) drives you crazy with his stupid technology.” Those scholars obsessed with elite politics and formal institutions would do well to more seriously consider politics from below. As Sidel (2002) reminds us, and Helmrich shows us, Bourdieu offers lessons about class, power, and protest that elude a Habermasian focus on the bourgeois public sphere.

Helmrich's single-shot cinema beautifully portrays democratization—its promises, processes, and pitfalls—as it is constituted and contested on the campaign trail and by new forms of patronage and vote buying. Helmrich films family members and friends who support the political parties of Golkar (“Party of Functional Groups,” the ruling party under Suharto's authoritarian regime) and PDI-P (“Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle,” led by the daughter of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, and catering to Indonesia's middle and lower classes). Whereas Rumidja proudly dons the red shirt of PDI-P in one scene, we learn that she eventually, and only somewhat reluctantly, voted for Golkar after they offered food and household necessities in presumed exchange for her vote. In the next film, Rumidja even encourages Bakti to leverage his new position as neighborhood manager to finance Tari's education. Helmrich's representation of Rumidja acknowledges the hazy moral boundaries between corruption and survival, democracy and desperation.

Rumidja's son Bakti, however, receives a less sympathetic portrayal. Whereas the labels “gambler” and “drunkard” certainly fit (a visibly intoxicated Bakti nonchalantly vomits on the sidewalk in one scene), accusations of Bakti's inherent laziness—which Rumidja complains about and Helmrich's editing style reinforces—echo long-standing Dutch colonial tropes of the supposedly “lazy Javanese” (Pols 2007). This is not to proclaim that Bakti is an admirable person, somehow misconstrued by the filmmaker. However, Helmrich's portrayal attributes Bakti's laziness to inherent personal traits, not the dire socioeconomic situation that structures Bakti's habits of despair and self-destruction. Single-shot cinema reveals the filmmaker's own feelings; however, the technique and subsequent editing also reproduce problematic histories of colonial vision and (mis)understanding.

Perhaps the most moving scene, and one that does sympathize with Bakti, comes near the end of the trilogy. Bakti's wife, Sri, fed up with his gambling and lack of affection, soaks his Siamese fighting fish in batter and proceeds to fry them in her cooking pan. When Bakti learns what Sri has done, he smashes her cooking equipment. Crying, Sri exclaims that she wishes he had just beaten her rather than destroy her only means to earn a living (she operates a small food stall in front of their home). With both of them in tears, Sri falls to her knees. Bakti holds her head, trying to convince himself not to beat her. It is a genuinely touching moment that resonates with anthropological arguments about the intimate links between socioeconomic class and psychological suffering (Kleinman et al. 1997). The power of this scene, however, owes more to prolonged engagement between filmmaker and subjects over the course of a decade than to single-shot cinema per se. Despite single-shot cinema's long shots and excellent camera movement from outside to inside, up and down, the final cut nonetheless remains constrained by the more conventional narrative and editing techniques of postproduction.

Complicities of Style, Vicissitudes of Sympathy: Islam as Antagonist

In one memorable scene on a train, Helmrich films a young boy sitting in the doorway. The single shot, which moves from inside to outside and back inside, high angle to low angle and back again, is a beautiful example of Helmrich's technique of single-shot cinema (this scene is also used in his film production workshops). However, it remains unclear how this shot actually provides any nuance or insight into post-authoritarian Indonesia or, more specifically, the lifeworld of this young boy. In another example toward the end of the trilogy, Dwi's son Bagus presumably steals two shirts and then flees the scene. The twists and turns of the camera's bird's-eye-view shots chasing Bagus through urban alleyways is breathtaking in terms of its visual aesthetics, yet the sequence provides little interpretive value. Similarly, clever fades in and out of sequences offer more style than substance.

Helmrich's portrayal of Islam reveals perhaps the most troubling pitfall of single-shot cinema. With eerie music and low-angle shots of angry, fist-clenching Muslims, Islam is depicted as a menacing antagonist that threatens the hopes of a newly democratic nation. Elsewhere, Helmrich juxtaposes a shot of Rumidja and Tari quietly praying in a Christian church with the Islamic call to prayers blaring from loudspeakers as bats fly from the bamboo rafters. We sense the filmmaker's disapproval during another scene where Rumidja gives money to a Muslim boy collecting funds to purchase new loudspeakers. For many Muslims, the urban soundscape during the call to prayers is beautiful, not bothersome. In yet another example, we hear the off-screen quivering voice of popular preacher Arifin Ilham supplicating to God for the safety of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Helmrich fails to contextualize this preacher's sentiments with respect to the widespread protests at that time—even by secular nationalistpoliticians—against the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the decade of Helmrich's filming, popular Muslim preachers such as Arifin Ilham, Abdullah Gymnastiar, and Yusuf Mansur became important figures of Indonesian modernity (Hoesterey 2009). These preachers were popular precisely because they offered Indonesians hope and optimism when the promises of reform began to crumble. Their widespread popularity deserves sympathetic analysis, not cinematic scorn. Rather than fetishizing the clenched fists and “Allahu Akbar” shouts of stereotypical Muslim rage, Helmrich might have offered a more nuanced portrayal of political Islam by tending to peaceful protests such as Abdullah Gymnastiar's “die-in” at the national monument in 2003, during which 10,000 protestors simultaneously fell to the ground to symbolize the lives that would be lost if America invaded Iraq. Shortly thereafter, General Colin Powell arranged to meet with Gymnastiar. One observer at that meeting told me that he had never encountered a diplomatic message as elegant or respectful as Gymnastiar's statement to Powell.

Helmrich has been an important proponent of single-shot cinema, yet technique alone cannot provide truth. The capacity for single-shot cinema to “shoot an event from the inside,” as Helmrich claims, is limited by the degree of sympathy the filmmaker has for the film subjects. Further still, cinematic style does not keep bias out of the editing process (MacDougall 1998). As Errol Morris (2005) has argued: “There's this crazy idea that somehow you pick a style, and by virtue of picking that style, you've provided something that is more truthful. … Truth exists independent of style … to say that vérité is more truthful than something that is narrated is just misplaced. Completely wrong.” Perhaps the flaw of single-shot cinema, at least for an anthropologist, is that it aspires to express the director's personal feelings rather than to elucidate the feelings, motives, and dilemmas of those being filmed.

Consider another scene in which Dwi becomes enraged after learning that Rumidja taught his son Bagus to pray like a Christian. In an effort to reinforce Bagus’s Muslim identity, Dwi decides to have him circumcised. Arriving at the mosque in ceremonial Muslim attire, a timid Bagus watches young boys scream in pain while cursing their mothers. The camera fixates on the boys’ cringing faces. I would hardly refer to this as filming an event from the “inside.” Why focus only on the boys’ screaming faces? Why so little attention to the consoling mothers? Why not include shots after the anesthesia has lessened the pain and the young boys celebrate their rite of passage?

About the same time Helmrich was filming screaming boys cursing their mothers, I was photographing an Islamic circumcision ceremony in West Sumatra. The mothers had tied sarongs to the ceiling to protect the circumcised penises from being irritated by the cloth. For hours on end, the woman in the photographs fanned her son and gently held his hand. By nightfall, the boys were playing merrily outside and the village celebrated their rite of passage. These images convey a different sort of intersubjectivity between mother and child, photographer and subject, photographer and audience (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1.

(Photo: James B. Hoesterey)

Figure 2.

(Photo: James B. Hoesterey)

Perhaps the most egregious misrepresentation of Islam was Helmrich's portrayal of a Hizbut Tahrir rally (Hizbut Tahrir is a loosely connected transnational organization that seeks to reestablish a global caliphate). On this day, Hizbut Tahrir was protesting neoliberal policies of privatization and the 2005 increase in fuel prices. One protestor, shot from a low angle that made him appear especially threatening, shouted into a megaphone that the price hike would increase poverty. According to the subtitles, he then proclaimed: “Therefore, the economy should be controlled by our religion.” However, what he actually said in Indonesian was “Matters of the economy are also matters of religion, my brothers and sisters” (urusan ekonomi adalah urusan agama juga, saudara). As one who has translated Indonesian for several documentaries, I can appreciate subtle variations between translations. But there is nothing subtle about this translation. The scene ends with close-up shots of young men screaming: “War! Defend! Continue!”

Helmrich's personal background might shed some light on his fascination with Indonesia and his fantasies about Islam. Helmrich's Dutch father grew up in the Dutch East Indies during the colonial era. After Indonesia's independence, his father married a Javanese woman whose father was a Muslim leader who, despite his religion, nonetheless allowed his daughter to marry Helmrich's Catholic father. Shortly thereafter, they moved to the Netherlands, where Leonard Retel Helmrich was born. This example of religious tolerance figures prominently into Helmrich's idea that, in contemporary Indonesia, “moderate” Islam is being supplanted by a threatening, Salafist political Islam. As he told James Ponsoldt of Filmmaker magazine in 2011: “The Indonesian interpretation of Islam has always been very moderate, free and open. But I noticed that the more fundamentalist Islam is now becoming more a part of the infrastructure in Indonesia” This nostalgia for Islam's peaceful past and concern for its perilous present are common narratives among many Indonesians and even some Western diplomats and academics. However, as historian Michael Laffan (2011) argues, the idea of a “moderate Islam” has roots in a complex colonial history between Dutch colonial officers and local religious leaders vying for religious authority. In short, “moderate Islam” is a political construction that always implies the threat of its inverse.

Contrary to Helmrich's romanticized version, historical evidence suggests that, at times, Muslim leaders in colonial and newly independent Indonesia were intolerant of supposedly deviant sects and played significant roles in the anti-leftist killings of 1965–1966. Further, Helmrich's demonization of encroaching Islamism is at odds with data suggesting that secular-nationalist parties—not Islamist organizations like Hizbut Tahrir—are actually behind many Sharia-inspired ordinances (Bush 2008). Thus, Helmrich's musings on “moderate” Islam sound more like postcolonial echoes of colonial fantasy than actual historical record or contemporary reality. To bring this back to filmic style and editing technique, I would argue that single-shot cinema's proclaimed advantage of revealing a filmmaker's feelings is actually a disadvantage when the filmic encounter is so poignantly shaped by the filmmaker's fantasy. Seen from this perspective, close-up shots of Muslim boys cursing their mothers suggest vérité ventriloquism more than Italian neorealism.

Ethnographic Sympathy and Cinematic Style: The Fate of the Filmmaker Subject

On his Web site, Helmrich reflects on Andre Bazin's preference for “appreciative criticism,” by which Bazin suggested that only critics who like a film should write reviews of it. To be clear, I do like these films. As film festival juries have agreed, there is much to applaud—Helmrich's magnificent choice of subjects, his keen observational eye, and his admirable attention to personal and political transformation. Whereas Helmrich is not an anthropologist and does not claim to make ethnographic film, I would be remiss not to engage the anthropologically troubling aspects of otherwise remarkable films. Every style of filmmaking—whether single-shot or observational cinema—has the ability to reveal and to conceal. For better and worse, Helmrich's trilogy demonstrates that a film's potential to convey some form of truth depends more on a filmmaker's capacity for ethnographic sympathy than mastery of cinematic style.