Leonard Retel Helmich films documentaries with a single camera amid the slums of Jakarta. The lack of technical sophistication gives the movies a true cinema verite. We watched one, “Shape of the Moon,” (sometimes referred to as “Shadow of the Moon”) in my class this morning. He follows a Christian family through their lives in the tin-roofed slums of the world’s most populous Muslim country. I’ve never been to Indonesia, but this movie, more than any other I’ve seen, put me back in the warrens of third-world poverty I’ve seen in South America.

It all came back to me – the children begging in the streets, the adults looking on with contempt, the feeling of discomfort that comes with knowing that my basic, cheap room is a luxury and fortune for those who stay while I travel on. In the film geckos ate bugs off a wall, a wastrel son walks on a train track to visit an Imam, and men desperately fight a neighborhood-wide fire with a makeshift bucket brigade, sewer water, and no sign of authorities until the next morning – and even then young boys hold the hoses.

How do you help? How do you not?

The movie camera winds through the streets after a cat, emaciated and fierce. It reminded me of the cats outside my dorm room in Jerusalem. Israel brought cats to fight a rodent problem, and now they have a cat problem. During the day, broken and bloody, they roam the streets. At night in the dumpsters I could hear them fighting, an ungodly screeching that hit pitches I’ve never heard since, and lack words to adequately describe, other than to say it’s the fighting sound of nightmares.

In the movie a man carries two geese in a gunny sack slung on his back. The geese still live. They must be dinner. In the early morning animal market at Otavalo, Ecuador I watched a woman in an old, dirty shift buy several chickens, hail a bright yellow cab, and stuff the flapping, squawking, clawing, violent birds into the taxi trunk. The cabbie helped her wrestle the birds. Trunk closed, they sped off. I couldn’t load my camera fast enough, and missed them. Today the town advertises this traditional, PETA-unfriendly market as a tourist photo opportunity. I’m not sure how I feel about that, either.

Helmich is speaking 7:30 Wed. night in the West Hall Auditorium on the RPI campus, Troy, NY.

Advertisements