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The Single Shot Cinema of Leonard Retel Helmrich

By Tom White

From Leonard Retel Helmrich's <em>Position Among the Stars.</em> Courtesy of Scarabee Films/HBO

Position Among the Stars, the final installment of Dutch-Indonesian filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich's trilogy about the struggles and hopes of an Indonesian family amid the tumultuous socio-political changes that country has undergone in the past decade, earned top awards at IDFA and Sundance this past year. With the previous films in the trilogy, Eye of the Day (2001) and Shape of the Moon (2004), Position Among the Stars follows the Sjamsuddin family--Rumidjah, the grandmother and de facto matriarch; Bakti, her son; and Tari, her teenage granddaughter and Bakti's niece--as they negotiate life in the slums of Jakarta.

Domestic friction abounds here: Rumidjah and Bakti both pin their hopes on Tari, a bright but rebellious secondary school student, to graduate and go on to university; Bakti struggles to get by as a neighborhood manager, while spending time raising fighting fish--much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife, Sri, who, in a moment of rage, fries them; and Rumidjah and Bakti differ in their respective faiths--she's a Christian, he recently converted to Islam.

It takes a wise and patient filmmaker to capture the poetry and complexity of this family melodrama, and Helmrich delivers.  Through a remarkably intimate cinema-vérité style that he calls Single Shot Cinema, which emphasizes camera movement and long takes, the filmmaker unveils both the universal in the Sjamsuddin family and the intrinsic in Indonesian culture, weaving in interstitial scenes of an armless beggar who operates a cell phone with her foot, and a little boy running through the alleys of Jakarta.

Documentary spoke with Helmrich in between screenings of Position Among the Stars at the Los Angeles Film Festival last June.


How did you develop Single Shot Cinema?

Leonard Retel Helmrich: Well, my background is actually in fiction, and in fiction you always shoot and cover the scenes from the inside, and that's actually what I wanted to do when I switched to documentary at the beginning of the '90s. Then I thought, you always have to be an observer from the outside [in documentary].  I didn't want that, and I did not want to manipulate because in fiction you can manipulate the situation, while in documentary you cannot.

Then I found that the best way to not manipulate but still cover a scene from the inside is to be part of the event itself. But that doesn't always mean that you have to be physically there; you are just one of all the people who are experiencing something in one place. And that was quite a hassle with the big cameras at the beginning of the '90s, so I couldn't develop it right. But later in the 90s, with the DV cameras, you could do that.

And it's all kind of a mindset--being part of a moment, among the people, and shooting scenes from the inside, from all angles, which is normally only done in fiction--without manipulating the situation. The only way to do that was Single Shot Cinema. You can only cover a scene if you also capture all the nuances in between the different moments and elements and objects that are interacting with each other.

In order to be able to capture all these nuances, there are certain things you cannot do and certain things you can do. I don't use panning movements, but I do use orbital movements. I always like the relation between different objects in order to capture things as much as possible from the inside. And, according to Andre Bazin, the film critic from the '50s, who also inspired me to develop this technique, when you shoot something, you have to shoot it in the pace of reality. I call it temporal continuity. You have to use camera movements as main narratives; it becomes a different film language. It's not the frame that's the focus; it's the movement of the camera. The movement of the camera, according to Bazin, is the essence of cinematography.


From Leonard Retel Helmrich's <em>Shape of the Moon</em>


There are some specific aspects of your work that struck me, particularly with Position Among the Stars. One is your affinity for nature. The dewdrops on the blade of grass...what you captured within those dewdrops, following a cockroach, following rats... How does nature figure in your work?

For me, nature is such an important element, especially in Indonesia, where there are always insects crawling around, lizards on the wall or cats walking around. I'm just aware of it.

Also, I want to use this family in my film as a microcosm for what's happening in the whole country--the political changes, the economic changes. In order for viewers to understand this, you have to go deeper, to a smaller world, to ensure that you [shift] in perspective from small to big and from big to small.


You capture scenes at remarkably low angles. In one scene, you're filming a cockroach's view of a street, you follow this cockroach up to the rooftop, then you shoot Bakti from the cockroach's point of view. How did you do that?

I have a special device called a Steadywing. It folds underneath the camera, and when you're filming you can unfold it during shooting and you can almost fly around. You can go very low to the ground, you can go high up to the ceiling--you're very free and still very steady. So steadiness and flexibility are very important in order to move your camera around. Then you can use your camera like you write; you describe the scenes with your camera movements.

That's actually the essence of Single Shot Cinema--capturing the moment as much as possible in one shot. Since reality is always longer than you can use in your film, you capture everything in one shot. Then it'll always be possible to condense it in shorter scenes without having to think of editing too much; you can always cut from movement into movement. That gives you all the freedom to go over very low surfaces, high ceilings, everything.


Leonard Retel Helmrich, director/cinematographer of <em>Position Among the Stars.</em> Courtesy of Scarabee Films/HBO


And that's what enabled you to follow that boy through the streets? How did you achieve that scene?

Well, it started off with very small things: The little boy started running suddenly, and I ran after him. I was behind him, then I managed to be in front of him, so I could film him. It was so nice that these shots were captured, and I thought, "Now I have to build it out to a more cinematographic story."  I built a special crane device from a bamboo stick, a kind of joint so I would be able to be move the camera with some ropes. I could control the camera as if it were a marionette.


So much of documentary is about achieving that sense of trust so you can capture intimate, very emotional moments. There is a particularly tense scene in the film-the confrontation between Bakti and Tari--and after the screening at Sundance, you talked about holding the camera away from you while filming that scene.

I'm never behind the camera. I always have my camera beside me or above me or underneath me, but not where I'm standing; the Steadywing enables you to do that in a very gentle way. When I was shooting that scene, I saw what was happening. Bakti was angry at his niece and he called her, so she had to come downstairs. I had the camera in front and then suddenly he slapped her. It really shocked me that he was doing that. Then he pushed her into her room. If you are part of an event, you are also responsible for what's happening, so if he had gone too far, I would have halted him.

I always had my camera with me. At a conscious level, you can say, I'm here physically; that's who I am: the camera goes in my hand and goes to my emotional point of view. My physical point of view is where my eyes are, but my emotional point of view is where the camera is. So I try to find those camera angles that you normally wouldn't use.


Is it just from years of experience of knowing what's in the viewfinder or frame that you can keep your camera out there and know what you're capturing?

Well, many times I don't know--I'm just pointing the camera in the right direction and I know already that angle would be good because I taught myself how to shoot without looking through the viewfinder. I just check it. Sometimes, especially in emotional moments, it's not always that you have to look at the faces of the people; it's also the moment itself.

I remember that scene of Bakti's wife frying his prize fighting fish. He then demolished her store and all the rubbish was lying on the ground. She was standing in it, shouting at him. I went with the camera to the rubbish and filmed over it. That moment I remembered that she was crying, Bakti was sitting there complaining--and I did not want to see the faces; I wanted to shoot the damage done. I had the feeling of a scene from Taxi Driver, at the very end, after the shoot-out and the camera goes over the whole situation. So I just follow my intuition. Where my view would go in reality, that's where I'll go with the camera.


You are both the director and the cinematographer. Is there a challenge of thinking as a director vs. thinking as a cinematographer?  

For me as a director, cinematographer and also a sound recordist, there is no difference between them. So I don't separate them. It's like a painter-you don't give the brush to someone else and say, Can you put this line here from left to right?


When you're filming a scene, how much do you think ahead to the editing room?

I'm thinking ahead mostly at the very end--the moment I have a feeling that I think I have seen a good beginning, a good middle and a good end.

When I'm shooting, I try to be in a kind of trance--still aware of what I'm shooting, but not thinking of the editing too much. I just film the details of the moment , then slowly pull out when the whole drama fades away. Then I become aware of what I've seen, and then I think, Will I understand everything that's in the scene? If I feel that this scene is complete, then I'm thinking of what angles may be used for an introduction or ending of the scene-and I'm also thinking of sound. Then I keep running the camera and I just shoot atmospheric sound.


What kind of cameras did you use for Position Among the Stars?

I shot with the Canon HVX A1. I actually used five different cameras, including that one; a JVC Ethereal, which is what I used for the cockroaches, for instance, because it was very good in micro; the Sony A1; and the Contour HD, which is a very small camera, but very good in wide angle. I also used a bigger camera for the little boy running that is fantastic for crane shots because they're so small and light. You don't need counterweights, so I just use a stick. I don't even have to lift it with both hands because then you'll be unstable. Just put it on the ground, put your foot there and it will not slide away. Then with a rope you pull it up.


There are a number of interstitial pieces in the film that are so poetic--for example, the armless woman who operates a cell phone with a foot. Was it a challenge to figure out how to fit these moments into the story?

In The Eye of the Day, we had lots of these moments of people who were not related to each other, who didn't know each other. The storyline was less clear, but I was very free to use these kinds of moments.

I still wanted to have the freedom to have sidesteps. That's why at the beginning, just to expose Jakarta as a city and what it looks like--and using this metaphor of how people live--I thought of the woman with no arms who could still operate the cell phone while begging. It was quite striking.


Going back to Single Shot Cinema, you teach workshops around the world, and you have a position at the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute now as an adjunct professor. In teaching this, what are your goals and objectives, and what you do hope the students will take from it?

Film language was for a long time quite stuck into a fixed way of storytelling, editing and framing. I think Single Shot Cinema can help to bring it further. When you look at the whole history of how the language has evolved, it's evolved out of the technical changes of what happened in film. And those changes are happening quicker and more frequently, so you have to be ahead of that. One of the things that I now promote is using orbital camera movements, where you put that moment in its surroundings.  You can use orbital camera movement for dramatic reasons and shoot by intuition.

Young people understand film language so well. At NYU Abu Dhabai, they had bought many of the Canon 7D cameras--the photo cameras you can use for shooting. But I heard that many of the younger people had a problem with depth-of-field because that's not their way of thinking. They want to be free, move around and that's a hassle because depth-of-field is actually a photography way of thinking, not a cinematography way of thinking. If you want to think as a cinematographer, instead of using depth of field, you move gently with the camera--and then you also have the same feeling as with depth of field. That's what I want to teach.


Going back to old school, who were your influences, particularly in bdocumentary, both directors and cinematographers?

When it comes to documentary, of course the direct cinema or cinema vérité people, even though they didn't have the freedom yet to move like I do; the cameras were too bulky. But still, I know what they wanted to achieve, what they were aiming for, and they were very good at it. Further on, I always liked documentaries about nature. And there are many fiction filmmakers like Bertolucci and Visconti, when he goes for very slow, very nice movements. Or Sergio Leone, who used camera angles that were never thought of. Also Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa.


For more on Single Shot Cinema visit Position Among the Stars airs September 28 on HBO.


Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.