Sunday, October 19, 2014

Margaret Mead ’14: Jalanan

It is like an Indonesian Once, except these real life buskers have a far more difficult time scraping out a subsistence living on the streets of Jakarta. They have considerable talent, but Indonesia is a tough room to play. Music, culture, and local regulations all collide in Daniel Ziv’s documentary, Jalanan (trailer here), which screens during the American Museum of Natural History’s 2014 Margaret Mead Film Festival.

Jalanan means “streetside”—and that is exactly where Ziv’s three primary buskers play. It is also more or less where Boni Putera and his family live. For ten years, they have squatted beneath an underpass, jury-rigging a rather impressive system of plumbing. As street living goes, it is relatively comfortable, but there are drawbacks, especially when the canal floods.

Even though she does not wear a headscarf, Titi Juwariyah often incorporates her Islamic faith into her lyrics. Of course, they usually garner respectable tips from more devout commuters. Frankly, through her experiences, viewers get a very personal sense of what it is like being a Muslim woman in the Southeast Asian country, especially with respects to parental rights (which will be denied to her) and educational opportunities (which were cut short for her at an early age).

As the most political of the buskers, it is not surprising Bambang “Ho” Mulyono serves some jail time, but he is picked rather randomly as part of the cops’ general campaign against fun and reason. He is not the only one temporarily imprisoned on dubious pretenses, but at least he eventually wriggles loose. In fact, he might have the most optimistic arc of the trio.

There is a lot of messy life happening in Jalanan, including significant good things and unresolved bad things, but the greatest surprise of the film is probably the quality of their music. Yes, they are street buskers, but they should in no way be confused with the “smile, it won’t mess up your hair” dude who sometimes warbles on the 6 train. Frankly, they are considerably better than your average hipster coffeehouse singer-songwriters. Their tunes are distinctive and their lyrics often have heavy meaning.

Whenever a documentary closely observes the trials and tribulations of those living in extreme poverty, the appearance of exploitation is always an issue. However, Ziv has apparently put some of his money where his lens was, starting and donating to a permanent housing fund for his subjects. He certainly pulls viewers into their lives, emphasizing the specificities of Indonesian life. In fact, the general hopefulness of Jalanan distinguishes it from many well-meaning but downbeat (and often condescending) documentary guilt trips focused on the developing world. Combining cultural insights with some catchy music, Jalanan is recommended socially conscious and busker-conscious audiences when it screens this Friday (10/24) at the AMNH, as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival.