Close encounters

Love in the air at remote film shoot

Dealing with the Sundance hype is tough enough for any young director. But just imagine if — like the filmmaker behind "Absurdistan," which premiered in the World Cinema Competition sidebar at Park City — your name was Helmer.

"I look at the trades every day and I get excited. 'I'm on the front page!' I say," "Absurdistan" director Veit Helmer jokes.

Helmer is hoping to rise up to his generic-sounding surname and fulfill the promise of his 1999 debut "Tuvalu." His new film is similarly set in a fantasy other world. And, like "Tuvalu," it was shot with striking imagery and little dialogue.

Helmer got the idea for his off-kilter comedy from a news item in his local paper in Berlin. It told of a tiny village in southern Turkey where the women went on strike, imposing a sex ban until their lazy husbands repaired the town's decrepit water pipes.

"I had the idea to do a story around that, focusing on the people who would be hit hardest by a sex ban — young virgin newlyweds," Helmer says. "I went to the village with the idea of shooting there. That's when the problems began."

He couldn't get anyone to confirm the story.

"A young woman said it was only the older ones who went on strike," he recalls. "The older ones said it was just the young ones. Some said no one went on strike, and they all didn't much like the attention the story has caused. So I left the village and started heading east. I crossed the country and reached the border (with Armenia). Nothing. But then I looked over the border and thought, 'Maybe over there.'"

Thus began a four-year Central Asian tour that would eventually land Helmer in a small Muslim village deep in Azerbaijan. He managed to get the villagers' approval to shoot there, though they insisted on a few conditions.

"Absolutely no contact with the village women, that was the rule," he explains.

The "Absurdistan" cast was left to themselves, isolated from the rest of the world, sustained on three to four hours of electricity a day shooting a film with a sex-obsessed story line. Something had to give.

"By the end of the shoot we had 14 couples, two marriages and, so far, two children born," Helmer says. "The cast was from 16 countries, we had no common language. That didn't seem to stop them."

It wasn't Helmer's intention for his third film to set off a mini baby boom. But he admits it is strangely appropriate. "I had the idea there was this country — Absurdistan — and in every country on Earth lives a citizen of Absurdistan. They were the ones I cast."

And now, they are the ones ensuring the nation of "Absurdistan" will continue, whatever the fate of Helmer's film at Sundance.
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