In the lyrical tradition of Robert Flaherty’s “Man of Aran,” “Eye of the Day” evokes the sights, sounds and rhythms of an island, in this case Java, and its denizens. Film, shot over a three-year period (1998-2001) when Indonesia underwent intense political and economic upheaval, follows a handful of people in verite as they go about their daily rounds. Docu’s manifest painterly quality — a lot of work goes on against gorgeous sunrises and sunsets — and the byplay between the naturalness and warmth of the people and the exoticism of their poverty make “Eye” a natural for fests, arthouses and indie cable outlets, but not necessarily for the usual docu auds.
Director Leonard Retel Helmrich is big on associative imagery. In a long shot, a man walks through a pastoral landscape: The camera moves in on the cross atop the roof of a dinky Christian church, gradually revealing the dome of a majestic Mosque that rises in perspective to loom above it. If we didn’t get the idea about the relative importance of the two religions, a motley group of Christian matrons led by a bespectacled minister with a red microphone is countered with vast symmetrical rows of identically white-garbed Muslim women bowing in unison.
If Retel Helmrich’s pictorialism often feels forced, the camaraderie and affection he captures transcends the framing conceit. A husband and wife lean down companionably to light each other’s basket lamps so they can sift through a garbage dump at night, that same dump being home to two affectionate cats, rubbing heads and purring madly, one apparently unfazed by the fact that the other is grotesquely deformed.
All sound is “source”; we’re treated to musical interludes only when they’re at hand, be they supplied by a crippled string instrumentalist weaving in and out of cars or a student singing a tuneful political protest song to a train of appreciative passengers.
Pic’s most memorable scenes revolve around the country’s newly reinstituted democratic elections (after 32 years of Suharto’s iron rule): The enthusiastic color-coded political party rallies (a losing candidate’s portrait promptly pressed into service as a gaudy multileveled pigeon coop); the noisy, friendly communal open-air voting place, where a woman peeks out of the sheet-covered booth to sheepishly ask to borrow a pair of glasses; the vote count with its oddly familiar dispute over whether an unclear ballot pinprick should be counted.
Tech credits are pristine, the camera as perfectly in focus when jostled in a handheld free-for-all as when framing copulating insects on a blade of grass.