Monday, February 09, 2009


As its theatrical poster infers, Veit Helmer's third feature Absurdistan (2008) is a buoyant and romantically ebullient fable, tempering the sexual politics of Aristophanes' Lysistrata with enchanting dollops of magical realism and insouciant humor. Since at least the Soviet perestroika, the term "absurdistan"—according to Wikipedia—has been in use to satirize "a country in which absurdity is the norm, especially in its public authorities and government."

Eschewing the term's potential political heft, however, Helmer adopted it to entitle his allegorical comedy centered on two childhood sweethearts—Aya (Kristyna Malérová) and Temelko (Max Mauff)—who seem destined for each other from the moment they're born. But when a water shortage threatens their village and the lazy indifference of the male villagers angers the women to go on a sex strike until the drought is resolved, Aya and Temelko's first night of love—predicted by a narrow astrological window—is jeopardized. Temelko must come up with a solution to the water shortage to satisfy all parties involved in order to win his beloved Aya. His efforts prove comic, poignant and … well … downright absurd.

According to the film's website, this idea came from a small newspaper article: In 2001, women in the Turkish village Sirt went on strike. As long as the men didn't repair the water pipes, they refused to have sex. Veit was fascinated by the comic and dramatic potential of the strike. Together with Gordan Mihic (Black Cat, White Cat) and Zaza Buadze he developed the script for a love story between two teenagers in the time of war between men and women.

Competing in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, Absurdistan was favorably reviewed by Variety's Dennis Harvey who anointed it as "delightful" and "too enjoyable to go unappreciated offshore", even as he admitted that "the market for this kind of parabolic former-Eastern-bloc whimsy isn't what it used to be." At Cinema Strikes Back, Charlie Prince insisted this "wacky" comedy was "hard not to like." Prince notes that one of the film's fascinating aspects is that it is told almost entirely via voiceover, and even then there is little dialogue. Relaying the director's post-screening commentary at Sundance, Helmer explained "that this strategy allowed him to be especially picky and to bring in the best acting talent from all over the world, since after all they wouldn't need to speak a common language. The result is that the characters speak mostly by acting and through facial expressions. In the end you have a modern slapstick comedy, and while there is of course a fully-engaged soundtrack, the acting is good enough that it probably would work just as well as a silent film." Harvey assesses Absurdistan similarly, stating that "[t]hough not strictly a silent film", it succeeds as a "delightful fable sans dialogue."

My thanks to Michael Hawley for alerting me to Nick Dawson's recent Filmmaker interview with Veit Helmer, wherein the same analogy is struck: "German writer-director Veit Helmer is a true oddity, a creative mind whose films might well have been unearthed from a time capsule buried during the era of silent comedy." Helmer, however, qualifies a bit defensively: "I like to take the best from silent filmmaking, as the visual language before sound came was much more elaborate than most of what we see nowadays in the cinema. Films were about visual storytelling at that time but I think I can combine the best of both because I like to work with sound. For me, sound has the same importance but I don't like to use sound just as dialogue and a little ambient sound and music in the background. Once you don't use dialogue, it means that you have an important task to fill that void with something which does not feel empty. I know how to cut the movie (anybody could cut my films), but to make the sound design is much more important so I feel misunderstood if people say it's a silent film just because there's no dialogue. I know you're not saying that, but people do say that and I always read it in festival catalogues. My sound designer is on the verge of getting a pump gun after working a year [on the film] and then reading that Veit Helmer made this silent movie."

Of further interest are Helmer's comments regarding shooting in the Muslim country of Azerbaijan, which I'm sorry to say I didn't even know existed until this film. My thanks to Veit Helmer for putting it on the map. Absurdistan opens theatrically at the Bay Area Landmark Theatres on February 20.

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