Review By: Charlie Prince
When director Veit Helmer took the stage to introduce his film Absurdistan at the Sundance Film Festival, he presented what amounted to a wacky 10 minute standup comedy routine about the fictional country of “Absurdistan.” Honestly, it didn’t make a lot of sense, but it was very good natured and in many ways it was the perfect introduction for the equally wacky (yet jolly) film we were about to see. Fortunately for the audience, the film was much easier to follow.
First thing you should know, the film’s title does not forewarn a heavy-handed political statement about why something or other about modern society is absurd, as some might have assumed prior to seeing it. The film is not nearly so serious. Just like Helmer himself, the film is out to have some good natured fun, and the title Absurdistan amounts to little more than a declaration that we’re in an alternate reality.
The premise of the film is a good example. In this happy town of Absurdistan, the men are extraordinarily lazy, mostly content to get together at the local pub and do little else but go home to make love with their wives — we’re told they take great pride in their reputation for having robust sex lives. But the wives of the village are more practical, and when the town starts to run out of water for lack of basic maintenance to their pipelines, the women naturally become very frustrated. The men, however, cannot be bothered to do anything about it, and simply adjust to a life of less water. As the problem gets worse they arrange to have one of the young boys in the village go to school in a bigger city in hopes that he will come home with a simple and easy solution. But, of course, without any maintenance, the pipes get worse, and when the boy comes home and is unable to solve the problem, the women of the town have just about hit their breaking point.
The boy in question is actually our star, Temelko (played by Max Mauff). And pretty much since birth, he has been in love with Ava (played by Kristyna Malerova). Up until now things have enjoyed a strictly platonic relationship but, now that they are teenagers, it’s clear that Temelko has only one thing on his mind. At the same time, they are also obedient kids and when, before Temelko leaves town, Ava’s fortune-telling grandmother tells the kids that they are destined to consummate their relationship two years from that day – they are resigned to this schedule. However, when the big day approaches a couple years later, the town’s water crisis threatens to get in the way.
While the men of Absurdistan waited for Temelko to return and figure out the water problem on his own, the situation becomes increasingly dire, as the water emerging from the town’s sole water pipeline has dwindled to almost nothing. In the interim, Temelko, having been sent to be educated in a bigger city and only recently returned to hopes that he will be able to (more or less single-handedly) solve the water problem, is also fully aware that the two year wait is almost over, and thus has other things on his mind, specifically Ava, Ava and more Ava. But when the big night comes and Ava sees that he has selfishly diverted the town’s small remaining water to a small swimming pool – all part of his plan for one extra-special night – she reacts with a simple proclamation. No water? No sex.
The women of the town, inspired by Ava’s somewhat accidental steadfastness in this mission, decide to follow suit, and now the men are actually paying attention, though they’re still too lazy to do anything. Before long a Monty-Python-esque battle of the sexes emerges. The town is divided into two with the men on one side and women on the other, complete with barbed wire and other silliness. The men send for help via carrier pigeon, only to have the message intercepted by a carnival-like sideshow operator who rolls into town with a “try your luck” game that’s almost impossible to win — like you’d find at an amusement park. The prize? A night with a lovely young lady he’s brought along with him. This of course pisses off the women of Absurdistan, who are nonetheless unable to do anything because the sideshow is operating on the other side of the dividing line that has separated the town into a men’s half and a women’s half….
You get the idea. And I really haven’t given much of the film away, as it continues to build from there, inevitably winding itself down towards one big, frenzied conclusion. After all, it’s not really about the fundamental story — its fairly easy to spot the inevitable happy ending -– but about the creative twists and the laugh-out-loud path the story takes in getting there. And while it’s certainly not the most “heavy” of film topics, it is very amusing.
One fascinating thing about the film is that it is told almost entirely via voiceover, and even then there is little dialogue. The director explained after the film 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.
Keep in mind that while the director was extremely picky in his acting choices, this was still a modestly budgeted film, and these weren’t necessarily the most well-known or the most experienced actors avaialable to him (the director explained after the screening that Kristyna Malerova’s was a local theater actress, and I believe he said this was her first film). In any case, the director deserves a lot of praise for his casting — one way or another he coaxed wonderful performances out of the cast.
The director also explained that he went to great lengths to get just the right “look” for the film. He traveled to numerous countries over two years to find just the perfect rural village for the story, one that would be free of such out-of-place elements as modern plumbing. Visually the film is a definite success, though from the director’s discussion after the film, it sounds like in order to staff a full crew in Azerbaijan he basically had to train the crew on the job and get very creative with fulfilling basic filmmaking needs (his mother, who attended the screening, apparently was assigned the important job of taking the actual film out of the country in batches, seeing as there was no film processing lab in Azerbaijan!). Helmer also mentioned that they had to fly in the camera from Iran, since he was unable to obtain one locally. Apparently much of the crew was trained in filmmaking on location, and with Helmer’s obvious charisma, this is easy to imagine.
As for a deeper or darker allegory, you’re on your own. The director half-jokingly agreed with an audience member at the screening that “men are stupid” and explains that Hemelko is “like all men” in that he intends to do good but sometimes does stupid things. If there’s a deeper meaning to the film than that, I missed it. But still, there are some fascinating cultural implications given where it was filmed. For one thing, a film as brazenly focused on sex as this is an unusual topic for a film filmed in a Muslim country. At one point, in particular, Ava appears completely nude on the roof of a building in the village (apparently it took quite a lot of convincing and manipulating to film that scene without creating a scandal in the town where they filmed).
The good news for us film lovers, and especially those of you who aren’t able to catch the film at a festival, is that a film as enjoyable as Absurdistan is bound to get a release of some kind, and will no doubt eventually be available on DVD. As of this writing, I have not heard of a deal being sealed at the festival for distribution, but be assured that we at CSB will keep our ears to the ground and will let you know if we hear anything. When it does come out, be sure to see it. It’s whimsical and silly, but it had the Sundance audience roaring with laughter and I suspect even the pickiest of audiences will find it enjoyable.
© Charlie Prince
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Filed under: Movie Reviews: Germany and Movie Reviews and Contributors: Charlie and Film Festivals: Sundance 2008