On Sunday, Global Voices brings you Street Ballad: A Jakarta Story by first time filmmaker Daniel Ziv, who provided BTB with this inside look on the motivation behind his documentary. The film airs Sunday, October 21 on the WORLD Channel (check local listings).
Street Ballad: A Jakarta Story is my first film. I was drawn to the unusual tale behind it not because of any ambition to become a filmmaker or the quest to find a ‘good topic’ for a documentary, but because one day on the streets of Jakarta, Indonesia, I stumbled across a gang of unique individuals whose amazing life story I could not ignore.
Street buskers: disaffected yet spirited youngsters who navigate Jakarta’s crowded buses and polluted streets, croon songs that spell out their life stories and challenge the powers that be. Marginalized youngsters working hard for enough loose change to get them through another week, never turning to crime, unemployment, or despair.
I was drawn into their world and as I spent more time with them, I realized their tale deserved to be told. I also recognized that it was a story with the potential to fascinate and charm audiences as much as it captivated me. Although I wasn’t yet a filmmaker, it was a story that happened to contain everything a documentary filmmaker could ask for: contagious personalities, compelling social justice issues, individual struggles that shed light on universal problems, a colorful urban sub-culture and – as an added bonus – a built-in soundtrack of wonderful original music.
I spent the first few months just immersing myself in their environment, hopping buses, conducting a kind of ‘silent audition’ with the hope of discovering an individual I felt could carry this story in a film and really connect with an audience.
Then one day I met Titi – charming, energetic, and upbeat despite the many hardships and pressures I would later learn she faced. Despite being a migrant from an impoverished village in Central Java, she was confident, graceful, and seemed utterly in control in her adopted city. But of course as I got to know her better, I discovered how conflicted her life truly was, what a precarious juggling act it had become.
A number of trips with Titi back to her family’s remote village in Eastern Java revealed the vulnerable side of her, and of Indonesia itself, that I hadn’t known. It was an intense, inverted experience – viewing urbanization and migration from the point of origin rather than its destination; the place where dreams were sowed before a harsher reality took over; and a Titi that was foremost a beloved daughter and sister rather than an underappreciated mother and wife.
In five years of closely accompanying Titi, I’ve grown to know her well, respect her, and recognize that both her struggles and hopes were very real. So the challenge of telling her story sensitively and truthfully was tremendously important to me. In the end, our greatest dilemma was how to edit five years of footage – so much life, so many events, so much complexity – into 52 minutes of engaging TV.
For all the challenges involved in shooting and editing this film, I never lost faith in the strength of Titi’s story or in her power to share it with us by simply being herself. She is at turns cheeky, confused, optimistic, heartbroken, and almost always determined. And she wears all those sides of her persona on her sleeve. This was a key reason my editor Ernest Hariyanto and I chose not to use any form of external narration. Titi’s personality and narrative require no embellishment or interpretation. She is her own best storyteller.
I have no doubt that viewers will be captivated by the heartbreak, humor, and absurdities of life on the fringes of society, and by the determination of this young woman to forge an identity despite the many obstacles she’s up against. Far from appearing like a victim to be pitied, she emerges – at least in my mind – as an unconventional role model.
I also must admit that what I perhaps naively thought would be a story about a street musician steadily evolved into a much wider, multi-layered, often disturbing story about Indonesia.
Street Ballad: A Jakarta Story portrays economic hardship, marital crisis, family separation, and heartbreak, but Titi’s dramatic story is remarkable mostly in how common it is across Indonesia.
Indeed, I’ve concluded that when you gaze long enough at people who fall through society’s cracks, you end up learning more about that society than about the characters themselves. So I owe a huge debt of thanks to Titi for inviting me into her life for all these years and therefore allowing me – and by extension all of us – to understand something more about the Indonesia in which she lives.