Review: Jalanan (Ziv, 2013) – CAAMFest 2015

Still from the movie Jalanan

Jalanan is one of the finest examples of cinéma vérité I have seen at CAAMFest, which is why I named it one of the 4 Must-See Documentaries of the festival. The documentary, which follows three buskers living on the streets of Jakarta–Boni, Ho, and Titi–offers a fascinating glimpse into the underbelly of one of the world’s most populated cities. Busking is technically illegal in Jakarta and punishable by jail time, but these three musicians persist in their art, out of passion and necessity.

With his lyrical bluegrass-style music, Boni supports himself and his family in their makeshift shelter beneath a bridge, where they’ve been living for a decade. Boni’s friend Ho, on the other hand, is a smooth-talking revolutionary; his music, which has a spoken word-like quality, reflects his politics. Finally, Titi is a married Muslim woman with three children. Busking is how she supports her ailing father in the countryside, but her profession causes tension with her disapproving husband. She often plays religious tunes on the buses, which she explains are popular with the passengers. She’s also not above singing commercial jingles for an extra buck or two.

Watching the film brought back memories of traveling through Southeast Asia. Ho especially reminds me of jolly personalities we sometimes encountered: he’s an amusing mixture of humor, candidness (what we consider “candid” in a local might be called “shameless” back home), and cynicism. But all three subjects capture that happy-go-lucky yearning that typifies that region in my mind. People poor in money, rich in spirit and character, trying to make the best of what life’s dealt them, and sometimes having a damn good time while they’re at it. Credit for that feeling of authenticity goes to the intimacy of the film, which follows one of its subjects even behind bars when he’s arrested for busking. The effect is a sense that you’re not just watching Boni, Ho, and Titi, but that you’re in conversation with them.

Kudos to the filmmaker also for his patience. Jalanan must have been filmed over a span of several years as it captures so many of the buskers’ big life moments, giving the documentary an expansive quality. At the same time, the quiet (in the case of Titi), cheerful (Boni), bemused (Ho) aspect of these three musician belies the tragedies and triumphs they experience, and it isn’t until the film’s conclusion that you sit back in thoughtful admiration at their resiliency, or what you might even call their courage.

Note: I spent a good deal of time wondering why I felt the dual storylines in Tough Love were ineffective but enjoyed having three subjects in Jalanan. For some reason, the intertwining of Boni, Ho, and Titi’s stories feels harmonious: yes, all three are buskers, but their personalities are so different. These differences are inherent to the film’s meaning. Not so in Tough Love, where the differences are more circumstantial. Anyway, just some random thoughts as I continue to figure out how to review documentaries.